How Carelessly the Tongues Lounge in Our Mouths

This issue completes a first full calendar year back from the purgatorial wasteland to which all failed newspapers are relegated. Such papers may be no more, but they linger in archives everywhere from public libraries to private homes. The Valley Voice remained in the collective memory, seemingly, just long enough to be eagerly anticipated upon its return. We found ourselves–a different newspaper entirely–being appreciatively welcomed “back.” It has been a minor adventure putting 22 editions out over the past 12 months–especially back near the start, when I didn’t always quite clearly know what I was doing while Steve and Tony tolerated me. Not since university have I been forced to write with such precision. A professor of mine once defined poetry as “language under compression.” I suppose good journalism is, as well.

Because, almost so much as what one says, how it is said matters.

Consider the jargon of our criminal justice system. In many departments of correction there are penitentiaries. This is oxymoronic. There can be jails or prisons, slammers, stoney lonesomes, pokeys or hoosegows–even the occasional big house–but a penitentiary denotes penance, therefore punishment–and we must decide, as a society, whether these institutions should be correctional or punitive. Let’s start by getting our language–terminology and analogy both–straight. A botched execution? If such a thing were truly made a hash of, the condemned simply would somehow refuse to perish. So “botched” in the recent Oklahoma case must be taken to mean not either swift or painless. The finality of it was never in question.

How carelessly the tongues lounge in our mouths!

I suppose because one has to physically attend, we refer to films, plays and sporting events as having been “gone to” or “seen.” Yet if one were to see the exact same things at home, on television, the verb “to watch” would be applicable.

On a family trip to Scotland twenty years ago, various members of our clan were scheduled to converge at successive staging areas–airports–en route to an ancient house in the vicinity of Edinburgh. My wife and I, with three kids and all their accoutrements, flew from Cabo San Lucas to Los Angeles, where we met a step-brother. Having added him to our entourage, we flew from LAX to Heathrow and collected my wife’s sister before continuing on a final, bonny flight northward. After a night at the airport hotel, we piled jet-lagged into a rented van for the last, driven leg of our journey. Navigation fell to me. The instructions–followed easily enough–culminated with the advice to look for a concealed entrance sign. We’d know we had arrived, apparently, because somebody had made a poor job of hiding it. Unless, conversely, it was hidden all too well. It wasn’t. Shortly after turning down a small side-street, a plaque on a low garden wall proudly read, “Concealed Entrance.” I still don’t understand this.

Or the assembly of any Chinese import. The furnished instructions, ostensibly, are in English–just not a version anyone can understand. More often than not, these are in some unintelligible argot best disregarded. Many a Christmas Eve past, two o’clock in the morning has found me sitting on the floor, flummoxed, in a jumble of disjoined components, bitterly cursing the entire nation of China. A few years ago, when our elder daughter starred as the Cat in the Hat in a TCOE production of “Seussical the Musical,” a group of us fathers was entrusted with set construction. We had no diagrams to guide us, or pictures–and as you might imagine, the set of such a production sported no right angles. With a modicum of common sense, some frantic tenacity and a boatload of trial and error, we eventually prevailed. The point is: Sometimes, no instructions at all are better than the ones provided.
Language, when not precise, can be useless or dangerous. It can also be hilarious.

So it was, well–arresting–to read last month of Supervisor Phil Cox’ youthful adventures at what he called the “Y.” May is Prevent Teen Pregnancy Month, and in that regard he regaled us with the example of swimming in a dangerous canal as analogous to risky teen sexual behavior. I am going to give Supervisor Cox a pass here because, even if his pen might not have been, it seems that his heart, at least, was in the right place. Still, the Y has long been slang for a woman’s crotch. I have written–and snatched back–several tasteless jokes here. Let’s just say that any mention of the Y, of canals at all, even, and of swimming there in dangerous waters were–mated with idea of preventing teen pregnancy–probably not the wisest choice of words.

Then, of course, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the whole concept of legalese.

Forget contracts, or parties of the first and second part. Forget leases. I am thinking of how laws are worded, particularly how they appear on our ballots. Here, the English language is as a rapier slashing in a swordfight: clause, comma, clause, semi-colon, clause, comma, clause, period. But–irony of ironies–there remains only confusion in all this exactitude. I have difficulty with propositions–sometimes, it seems, “no” doesn’t really mean “no.” Without the supplemental information provided by the League of Women Voters, I would frequently be rebuffed in my effort merely to comprehend the ballot.

The League is Y I am able to cast the votes I do with some degree of confidence.

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