- Important: All passwords were reset on 06/15/11. Old passwords will no longer work. Click here to retrieve your password.
- Subscribe to Our Free Dewsletter
We are non-commercial, all volunteer and supported by our readers. Please help sustain the Dew by making a donation.
le mot juste
I’m British, therefore much affected by American culture through films since the era when they were black and white, and through popular music. Always interested in words, I was highly entertained by American ways of using them. I read a lot of American novels. Words come at me through the air, sight and sound. They strike me when the expression is fresh, the vocabulary inventive or the cadence changes. American English has seeped into our language to a powerful degree. I enjoy the way language develops, but not the way it shrinks.
I came with open ears when I moved to America seven years ago, ready to be enriched. “Out in the boondocks” pleased me, since I heard it on holiday in California in the seventies. “Oh heavens to Betsy,” conjured a rural scene. I soon discovered two new favorites: “the whole nine yards” and “from soup to nuts” – wonderful. This vocabulary could only be born in America: quirky, funny, inventive. Gradually however, I became aware of limitations in everyday vocabulary. Sometimes my computer highlights a word it rejects and it’s missing from Webster’s dictionary, but it’s there in Collins’ English. In addition, our history and proximity to France have added many expressions where French says it better than English, but French has little traction in America, even a familiar expression like le mot juste.
I was dismayed to discover that everything in America was described as awesome or cool, unless it was gross. Awesome suggests to me the moment when sunlight shines through stained glass windows, glinting gold, as the organist plays crescendo. I have seen the Milky Way in dark skies: that’s awesome. Beautiful Earth viewed from space is awesome. The moment when a child is born, and handed to his mother whose pain suddenly recedes as joy floods her heart, is awesome.
In America I’ve heard “awesome” used to describe a chocolate cake, new curtains, a trip to Las Vegas, a book and a hundred other trivial things. It is emphatically good but unqualified.
“Cool” is even more bemusing. I struggled to understand the connotations of cool and eventually gathered that it meant anything the speaker approved of, without giving a clue to its merits. Did they mean amusing, handsome, exemplary, original, endearing, laid back, memorable, or what? I asked my teenage grandson to define cool and without hesitation he said ‘It means it’s hot.’ I’m perplexed. I learned French and Spanish in my youth and made great effort to understand the vocabulary precisely, but American is really testing.
I cannot stretch my imagination to call an untidy room “gross.” Gross to me suggests eating live maggots or cleaning up someone else’s vomit.
The fault lies partly in me, that I am too literal. I wonder if it’s my Irish genes, third generation removed. Some years ago a woman was telling a group of us about the clothes line she asked her husband to put up in the garden. He made such heavy weather of it that although she assembled the post and the line, “He didn’t do it for yonks,” she said in disgust. Oh dear, how long is yonks? Did she mean days, weeks, months or even seasons? Without judging the delay I could not calculate the measure of her chagrin, and now I’ll never know.
Einstein was right: absolutely everything is relative. How can we measure without reference points? A fellow mature student at university had a six year old son. She was fey in a way that disturbed me. Her son had asked her, “How old am I, Mummy?” She told him “Six.” “How old are you, Mummy?” She answered “Seven.” She smiled at the recollection. I was concerned. “How will he calculate things if you give him wrong information?” I asked. “What?” “If he thinks the difference between you is only one year, how will he calculate time?” She thought I was ridiculous. I thought she was making her son’s life more difficult than she should. Children need constant information in order to build judgement. When I was thirty my four year old son said, “You must remember Mummy, you are old.” I didn’t contradict him because to him it was the truth. He is forty nine now and I am really old, but only relatively so. I can still do handstands and cartwheels intellectually; only my joints stop me doing so.
Words are meant to communicate and clarify our thoughts. I was completely thrown at age sixteen in school by a question in a Biology paper which asked: “Describe an experiment to calculate the volume of air in a laboratory.” I was taken aback, but started my answer, “First close all the doors and windows,” and went on to measure the walls. I got no marks for this and was ridiculed. They should have asked, “Describe an experiment in a laboratory to calculate the volume of air,” and I’d have recalled the glass stopper displacing water in a graded glass. It made me forever wary about examination questions. No marks for their sloppy syntax.
When I was young, “sloppy” was a euphemism for “making out.” “Was he sloppy?” we’d ask about a boy, meaning “Did he try to kiss you?” (Those were more innocent times.) We knew exactly what “sloppy” meant, which is more than you can say for “cool” or “awesome.”
Worthy of Comment
Also on the Dew
None other than the Harvard Business Review reports that the ability to communicate is the number one trait top executives possess. The ability to communicate trumps ambition, education, sound decisions, and a capacity for hard work. It’s too damn bad the folks on top can’t delegate their talent. Way too many business people cannot write. How well I know. My eyes glaze over at their attempts. Check out most corporations’ mission statements and you’ll need a café latte with an extra shot of espresso. Here’s a snoozer for you: “We strive to globally provide access to multimedia-based intellectual capital and efficiently simplify effective so Read on →
As it says in my by-line, in the several items I've posted previously on "Like the Dew," I recently ran for Congress. But I am not a politician, nor possessed of a personal ambition to hold public office. I ran, rather, because for the past nine years I have had a message that I regard as so urgent that I've been willing to do whatever I can to spread it far and wide in order to persuade my fellow citizens of its truth and importance. I believe that for the past decade or so America has faced a crisis as pr Read on →
My beloved colleagues in Teh Media sure get on my last damn nerve. Most of the time it's just from sloppy work or jumping on whatever bandwagon is rolling by at the time, something along the lines of a pet peeve. Like when my Twitter list of political reporters blows up with some hashtag meme instead of actual reporting. Today it's #Obamacareinthreewords, launched by that icon of credibility, Rep. Darrell Issa. It's the second time around for that one -- Rep. Kevin McCarthy launched it the first time last June. (@WhiteHouse even got in on it, tweeting "It's.The.Law." Republicans responded with "arrogance Read on →
If you're a head of household in little Nelson, Georgia, you're about to be required to have a gun and ammo. If you want to, and if you can afford it. But not if you're a convicted felon or have certain physical or mental disabilities. The law is just a stupid as the reasons for it. The police chief, also the town's only police officer, said he hoped the law would make Nelson safer. But he didn't have any stats on just how unsafe Nelson is now, before the law. "Very minimal," he told ABC. "I couldn't even give you a percentage." Read on →