Sunday, July 3, 2011


Yesterday I and several other people apparently in the throes of puppy withdrawl set upon a several-months old golden retriever on a Long Island beach, and one of the women called him not cute or sweet or smouchy, but chewy.

What a chewy puppy, she said, or He's a chewy puppy.

I was in the midst of trying to get my ring finger out of his mouth, so I can't quite remember how she said it. The phrase was definitely chewy puppy, and it occurred to me that she was saying something unique unto herself.

I appreciated it in a new light after hearing one of my sisters' friends talk about personal vocabularies. Before I tell you what this woman said, though, I want to mention how, many years ago, I started to take an interest in the books read by a man I knew. He'd read whatever he was reading, and I'd happen to read whatever he was reading--until the day he noticed what I was doing and told me that I really needed to get out of his wake. Which I did.

Even before that, there was a very short piece in the Observer called Cock A-Doodle Don't. I think either Phil Weiss or Peter Stevenson wrote it, or maybe it was that Stevenson wrote a parody of a book Phil Weiss wrote....? Something like that. It was a good piece, regardless, and in it there was this instance of an assistant to a Graydon Carter-like man using a word that the Carter-like man would have used. The assistant plucked a word from his boss's lexicon/wardrobe/arsenal and used it on his own lips.

Why I bring this up is because my sister's friend happened to articulate one of the best language practices going--best in my opinion, at least, because it speaks to (sorry) everything that is the opposite of salesmanship and slick, quick insta-relationships one-sidingly calculated and supposedly rooted in an organic common language .

The friend of my sister was talking about how nice it was to have a conversation with a certain architect we all know. It was nice, she said, because after she and her husband explained their thoughts about a project, the architect demonstrated his understanding of what they'd said by explaining it all back to them using his own words.

His words, not their words.

What she was getting at, I think, was the intelligence at work during that conversation. She wasn't saying, "He heard everything we said, as evidenced by his repeating our words to us"; she was saying, "He heard everything we said, as evidenced by his responding to us in his own way."

I glanced at my sister's friend. She could not, I am certain, know how grateful I was to hear this. I was grateful because sometimes when people echo my words, I've sometimes wanted to say, as my reader friend said to me: "It would be better if you could find your own words, so that this doesn't wind up feeling like an act of co-optation or a linguistic hijacking."

What might be regarded as a benign movement toward common ground or a gesture of friendliness can actually feel like something invasive--though it could also represent an instance of linguistic migration, or some such (a phrasing I picked up from an editor I once knew). I doubt I'm the only person who feels this way. Certainly there's plenty of language to go around.

I still call golden retrievers golden retrievers, even though a man I used to know called them Connecticut dogs. I always thought that was hilarious. When I see them, I sometimes think to myself, There's a Connecticut dog, but I never say so aloud. When I saw the puppy on the beach, all I thought was I have to pet that puppy right now.

::UPDATE:: However, it must be said that when there's an established context and some level of familiarity between people, people who affirm one another's vocabulary words do so in affinity. Also, for whatever it's worth, in the past two weeks the words group and team (or perhaps I should say group vs. team) actually posed some difficulties for an entire group/team of people who didn't know one another except in a business context.

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