You Were Saying?

By Scott E. Roeben

Lots of people speak English. Not the people who serve you at fast food restaurants, granted, but lots of other people do.

Our language is what they call a "living language." Which means that it is constantly growing. Much like any chef who specializes in Cajun cooking.

You would think that because our language has evolved, much as certain animals have evolved through "natural selection," that English would be sleek and efficient—like a cheetah. Instead, English more often has all the landspeed and agility of a tract home.

Somewhere along the way, communication got very complicated. For most of history, we spoke mainly in sentence fragments.

Cavewoman: Food.
Caveman: Sleep.
Cavewoman: Food.
Caveman: Sleep.
Cavewoman: Attorney.
Caveman: Where spear? And good idea make room in fridge.

But it didn't take us long to complicate things. I suspect that our language took a wrong turn when we started naming parts of it. Were we really doing ourselves a favor when we decided to break our words down into "subordinating conjunctions" and "predicate nominatives"?

As our language began to take shape (the shape of a leek in case you were curious), it drew from many sources.

There was Latin, one of the two great languages of antiquity. ("Antiquity" meaning the period inhabiting the era between "Ancient History" and "The Middle of Last Week.") Latin was spoken by the Latinese, apparently, because no one else will admit to having started it. The Latinese spoke a language now considered a "dead language," so-called because in high school if you tried to speak it anywhere near a varsity athlete you would probably find yourself in that condition.

A typical Latin phrase might be commenticia mordens pollinctor. Which in our beloved English means: "The fable is biting the undertaker." Now you have some idea why the language is dead. Or at least seems that way. The other reason is that Latin now hangs out almost exclusively in cathedrals, and nobody really goes there anymore.

The other great language of antiquity was Greek. Greek is an Indo-European language, a widespread family of languages including Italic, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Celtic and a number of others which make you laugh even louder than those when you say their names out loud.

Modern Greek is spoken by about 10 million people in Greece, none of whom can provide you with ice for your soft drink, for some reason.

So, from the building blocks provided by the Greeks and the Latinese, we proceeded to develop a language full of charm and nuance and cuss words that would make a lumberjack blush.

English is rich with variety and color. It seems that every vocation has its own vernacular, or "jargon." (A noun, with origins in Middle French. You might suspect that this would be a perfect opportunity to berate the French in some manner, but I won't. Coincidentally, though, I looked up "French" in my Latinese dictionary. I found the word "fatuus." It means "imbecile." Enough said.) Jargon helps people do their jobs. It helps doctors doctor and lawyers lawyer. It also serves to remind people who are not doctors or lawyers that because they do not know the appropriate jargon, they will be getting billed an average of $150 an hour extra for the privilege of having the jargon translated.

The following are some jobs and hobbies and the accompanying jargon used by their participants.

Filmmakers: sticks (camera mounts), inky dink (a small lamp), gobo (a black screen used to block unwanted light), ECU (extreme close-up), klieg light (carbon arc lamp producing intense light), crap (most films starring talking animals).

Fox Hunters: whipper-in (member of the hunt responsible for hounds), tantivy (cry of huntsman when chase is at full tilt), worry (action of hounds in tearing fox carcass apart), cowardly bastards (fox hunters).

Priests: matins (first canonical hour of the day), logos (the word of God--the word more often than not ends up being "begat"), aureole (halo), holy rood (cross or crucifix), Doxology (words of praise), young boy (date).

Drunks: pull (sip of a drink), soft (wine and beer), bracer (drink taken as refresher), redeye (cheap, strong whiskey), pants (restroom).

Obviously, the scope and complexity of our language precludes me from broaching all of its aspects here. For that, I would need at least another half-a-page. At least. And why kill more trees than we have to, eh?

Let's just say that the English language is like a toupee. It is not perfect by any means. Especially when you're swimming. But you would certainly notice if it wasn't there. It helps us convey thoughts and dreams. All right, so a toupee doesn't really do that. Analogies are imperfect. Which just serves to illustrate perfectly my point about the difficulties of dealing with English.

So there.


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Scott Roeben, 2001. All rights reserved.