Friday, October 2, 2009

Why Lamey is Not a Chosen Y Word

A letter from a friend reads:

Dear Ms. Woman,

I just read in the NY Times (my only media source) [Ed. Note: Pity my friend this] that describing something as "lame" is a derogatory term. For instance, if one were to exclaim:"It's so lame that you bought me this cucumbery substance from Gristedes," it might offend a nearby cripple. Who knew?

Perhaps you should address this, O Worded One. If we add a "y" to the end, does it qualify for your prefered subject matter? Or will your readers confuse that with "lamé"?

Gentle Reader

Well, Gentle Reader, I've got to break the news to you now: using the word lame displays bad taste in language, not because it might offend the cripple but because it's imprecise Valley Girl speak. Acceptable imprecise language is American WASP--for example, "So long" instead of "Good-bye"--or restrained slang: "She's all that." (Unacceptable is cloaking I Can't Handle Life" euphemisms, such as " X passed away"; better to say "X died.")

Lamé I have no issues with unless it pollutes the water supply.

American WASP, by the by (or bye), is really a branch of what should be termed Midcentury American English (and is right up there with Italian, though I would never date an Italian man now). I truly like Midcentury American English. Few people I know these days are actually fluent in it. One is a member of my family; a few work in a law firm; a few in schools; a few at certain magazines; and many are writers. If you go up to the Academy of Arts and Sciences on an awards day you are certain to hear many people speaking it. Most of them are older than I.

When John Updike was a boy, basket ball appeared like so, I believe. (The Winston Simplified Dictionary students might have used once upon a time at The Packard School, 253 Lexington Avenue, NYC, for instance, shows that in or around 1931 basket ball came first under the forefinger and basketball came second.) Then basket ball took up a hyphen. Then it sustained a merger. Some time after that John Updike died. I'm just saying.

(Tom Beller writes entertainingly about basketball, I find--or maybe I just like his courts. But I digress.)

A woman I met this week told me about her teenage children, how often they press her to hurry up, especially on the computer. I wanted to tell her that she might be of the last generation able to convey something of the good that comes from slowing down. Well-made things can often take time. Certainly it's useful to understand a little about the nature of time and our fashioning of it and our perception of it.

Sometimes I think about the whole "work to live" or "live to work" idea. This meets up with that question about going on vacation, viz., Is real life what happens on vacation, or is real life what happens when not on vacation? Turns out (after taking a real vacation for the first time in nine years) that real life is what happens. So when the kids tell the Mom that they want her to hurry up, she's really the only person who can put her foot down and demonstrate that there is much in a moment.

Today, for instance--are you sorry you wrote in . . . --a woman handed me a pen after putting the cap back on. She performed this pen-capping gesture that made it clear that we had a relationship and were passing this pen between us, and she took the time to look at me, and I looked back. It was a taffy moment. It was stretched out. She somehow created a little clearing spot of time just for us--and it was tiny but it felt roomy.

Was there anything so wrong with basket ball? Are we one day going to write tenniscourt? Because that would be seriously lame.

1 comment:

jeff said...

The concatenation of words has been with us for a very long time. I just learned today that "fortnight," which is one of my favorite words, although it is Old English English rather than Midcentury American English, comes from the even older English "feowertine niht," or fourteen nights. But somewhere along the way, some lord or lady was too busy to use two words and so strung them together, perhaps as such: "cook this goose within a fortnight, before it gets gamey."