English, lovely, English
May 3, 1999
Three months ago, the white director of the mayor’s office of the Public Advocate in the District of Columbia, Washington, used the word “niggardly” to his staff when referring to how he must manage office money.
He used the word correctly – it means stingy, miserly – yet resigned from his post when one of his staff confused the word with “nigger” and caused a stink in the media. The mayor, a black man, rehired the director a month later upon reconsideration.
Were you LOL at this? You know, “laughing out loud”. An acronym, it is used in Internet-talk when communicating via e-mail. Perhaps not part of everyday, non-Net speech, the possibility of the term (and others like it) becoming current were discussed at this year’s annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.
Take melts, for instance. At lunch last week with some colleagues, one of them remarked the restaurant had melts on the menu. “This is wrong,” he said. “They mean milts.” The others and I looked at him. He was a word-watcher, so we didn’t doubt his authority. But, you could tell from the expressions on our faces, we knew milts as melts and had never, in the vernacular, encountered fish sperm as anything else.
“I can’t help it,” our colleague said.
Not that he had anything to apologise for.
I grew up reading or trying to read anything my eyes scanned – couldn’t help it. The contest on the back of a cereal box would hold as much interest for me during breakfast as the front page of the morning paper. Or, rather, the way the words on each was used did. This habit developed into a deep and abiding affection for my native tongue.
I admire English’s sly permutations and quirky combinations. I revel in its clever contradictions and deft complexities. Give me its full body, brave heart and restless soul.
Most of all, I love the language’s flexibility. It’s so ... sexy.
The Washington Post recently asked its readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. The following are some of the winning entries; they speak for themselves.
Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a refund from the IRS (or the Department of Inland Revenue), which lasts until you realise it was your money to start with.
Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of obtaining sex.
Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the recipient who doesn’t get it.
Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then the Earth explodes, and it’s like a serious bummer.
Glibido: All talk and no action.
Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.
•Robert Sandiford is The NATION’s Associate Literary Editor.