The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases, Part 3

In which the Elegant Bastard explains the power to be found in the appropriate use of words like “Um” and “Ah” and “Er”.  Neat, Eh?

What began as a simple question – How many English words are there? – ended up taking me the better part of a day to determine and the outcome was at best ambiguous. Answers ranged from about 150,000 to just over one million, depending upon what constitutes a word, whether compound words and multiple meanings count multiple times and whether or not words invented by acknowledged geeks – skeuomorphism? – needed to be considered at all.

I also discovered that an absolute answer, while no doubt fascinating, would be irrelevant to what appears to be the primary function of language today – the confusing of others. The Empire of Babel, Dear Reader, has now spanned the entire globe. And the very least we now have pyschobabble, ecobabble, econobabble, edubabble, sociobabble, obamababble, boehnerbabble and baby babble, the latter being the only variant ever evolves  in to something making sense.

It wasn’t always this way. One can easily imagine a far distant pre-word era when woofs and grunts of various lengths and tonal variations were enough to get around. Given that career choice was limited to being predator or prey, resumes and interviews were pretty much non-existent and therefore the ability to tell articulate lies remained an undiscovered art.

There then followed an age of few words that all had very precise meanings. Life was just as violent as before but social relationships had emerged and caves needed decorating. Even with these advancements,  middle and upper-class cavepersons probably managed to get by with less than a dozen; “eat”, “drink”, “mate”, “fire” and “run like hell” come immediately to mind. At this point in human history, “eat” and “drink” were likely interrogative, “mate” and “fire” imperative and “run like hell” communicated by mime.

The development of urban culture, competing civilizations and effective antacids expanded the number of necessary words exponentially. Now we had thousands of pasta varieties and even more ways of killing people. The emergence of conversation added the need for sophisticated slang vocabularies and some of the more popular body parts acquired hundreds of words dedicated solely to them. The birth of government required elaborate words that meant very little while the development of political correctness spawned words that meant nothing at all. “Run like hell” has remained pretty much what it always was. However, the number of things from which one needs to run like hell has grown to include plague infected squirrels, reality shows, Russian presidents and in much of North America, the mayor.

(“Run like hell” no longer necessarily means the sweat provoking stampede over large tracts of ground while screaming. It can now be achieved by drawing the curtains, turning off the phone and conducting extensive research into European vodka or South American flora.)

However, none of these uses of language answers our species’ primary need: differentiation. How in this enormous and teeming world can we ever make ourselves special?  Some do this by creating esoteric and deliberately abstruse vocabularies that use language to impede or prevent understanding. In this way, a teacher’s complaint that he or she had to spend the weekend making up a test translates into two days spent creating a differentiated and criterion referenced summative assessment tool that serves as a gateway indicator. Special, no?

Interestingly, some of the original woofs and grunts have remained with us and, surprisingly, they can convey meaning just as and sometimes more effectively than their more complex progeny. In today’s edition of “The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary”, I attempt to provide an exhaustive list of these very short exclamations that function primarily as emoticons or hesitation devices. Again, I ask for no reward other than your promise, Dear Reader, to use them wisely, widely and primarily with other people.

Ah: Expressed in a short, sharp fashion, the word means “Eureka!”  or “I understand!” or “I accuse!” Traditionalists would insist that upon uttering this exclamation, one should leap from one’s bath and run naked through the streets, preferably somewhere in Greece. Less doctrinaire logophiles will permit the substitution of enthusiastic fist pumping or finger pointing.

Ah(2): Expressed in long, drawn out fashion and accompanied by an elegant  finger placed lightly upon the chin, the word essentially means that the utterer has no idea what is going on but would die rather than admit it. The removal of any clothing in this situation would be an attempt to distract the listener’s attention.

Arg: Sometimes pronounced “Erg”, this exclamation expresses anger or pain. At its loudest, it means that special and intense combination of pain and anger experienced by someone applying a hammer vigorously to the thumb, Canadians trying to understand what’s wrong with Justin Bieber  or anyone using Windows 8.

Aw: Used alone, drawn out and moving in pitch from high to low, it is the appropriate response to the cute actions of other people`s pets and children. Used as a short sharp outburst followed by “Damn” or “Crap”, it refers to the actions of one`s own pets and children.

Eh(1): A Canadian expression and likely genetic in origin, it’s use at the end of any sentence expresses the speaker’s confident assumption that the listener will agree with whatever has just been said, as in “Nice day, eh?” Used properly, it also means that the speaker can name four provincial capitals and sing most of the national anthem.

Eh(2): Used on its own, it replaces “Pardon me” for those who are syllabically challenged. The speaker is able to name three provinces and hum the opening line of the anthem.

Eh(3) Its repeated use in a short period of time suggests that the speaker may know his own name but should likely not be asked to hum anything.

Er: This exclamation suggests some degree of moral anxiety or confusion. (For real confusion, see Ah(2)) Uttered as a response to your question as to whether or not an article of clothing makes you look fat, you may safely assume that the article in question does not make you look thin and the persons responding are worried they might hurt you.

Er(2): If pronounced “errrrrr” in the same context, then you are enormous and the persons responding are  worried that you will hurt them.

Ew: Used as a brief and unemotional single syllable, it suggests that your listener is mildly offended or seriously bored by whatever you have just said. It may be followed by a request that you perform some task requiring you to leave the room and/or the country.

Ew(2): Lengthened to a two-syllable sound with the stress upon the first syllable and pronounced “eee – uuu”, it refers to dogs with no shame, living organisms with more than four legs, or anything with polka dots.

Ick, Icky, Yuck, Yucky: These are used to refer to substances (or situations) that are unpleasant, especially to touch or taste. Of more importance is the fact that they are mostly used by those who see themselves as “cute”. As they will also use expressions like “itsy-bitsy” or “teenie-weenie”, they should not be left unsupervised near pre-literate children.

Oh:  Used briefly, it acknowledges an understanding of something previously unknown. As such, it is often followed by “Thanks”, “Really” or “Hell”.

Oh(2): Extended, as in “Ohhhhh”, it suggests a profound and usually unwelcome new understanding. There will rarely be thanks and “Hell” will be replaced by much stronger terms.

O: This reverential form of address should be used when conversing with any divine being that is in the same room as you and powerful enough to cause inconvenience.

Umm: The speaker is making a choice, usually between two very pleasant options. Would you prefer to sample the coconut gelato or the green apple? Would the world be a better place if all of Antony Weiner disappeared forever or just the bits he flaunts?

Uh: Said briefly or drawn out, it means that the speaker is watching whatever you are doing and is hoping that you come with an “off” switch that can be accessed before it’s too late.

As always, Dear Reader, I hope you have found our time together useful. Again I would like to stress that I will accept no material reward for my efforts. However, those who want to express their gratitude in an appropriate fashion may do so by signing my petition demanding that anyone using the word “awesome” be forced to watch televised fishing programs every day for a year.

As always, feel free to “like”, “share”, “tweet”, or comment.

 

Sunday Morning Coffee 4: The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases

In which the Elegant Bastard undertakes the Herculean task of addressing past instances of word abuse, and vows to continue this crusade until death or the availability of really good ice cream.

Words, like people, are dynamic things. They live. And since they live, they appear to be very good at doing something else people do. They change. They do this arbitrarily, more often than is really polite, and generally without my permission. I find this to be unreasonable. I see nothing wrong with expecting words to stay quietly in one place for several consecutive centuries. In fact the world would be a much better place if more people did the same thing.

I suppose I would be less agitated if words went about changing with a little more honestly. Instead, words stroll around as if all were normal, whistling innocently with a “Who? Me?” look plastered across their oh-so- innocent syllables. They even maintain their spelling and pronunciation.  Then, suddenly – WHAM – they shift their meaning. Some see this as subtle. I call it sneaky!

That’s also why I resent it.  I like meaning. Meaning and I are good friends. Meaning is the reason why, when I order tortellini, I don’t get tofu. It’s ensures that people are not able to safely refer to others with terms like “ferret-face” or “toad-breath”.  It’s why STOP signs contribute positively to population growth. It’s all about stability. I like stability.

It’s when words don’t mean what they used to mean that we get wordquakes. I don’t like wordquakes. They make me nervous. When I get nervous, my palms sweat, I start to mutter and my eyes roll unattractively. I conceal myself in small dark places and eat all the chocolate cookie dough ice cream. These actions create tension in those closest to me. They share it with others, it spreads and eventually there is turmoil in Egypt. I think this is unfair. I like Egypt.

It is to prevent situations like this that I urge everyone to try very hard not to mess with the meaning of words. Then, when the man on the street corner tells us that our duck is mooing at the barking cat ‘cause Obama’s wearing boxers and the snow is firing bullets in Barbados, we can assume with some certainty that this is not “Breaking News” from CNN. We can start cautiously backing away from our informant while uttering soothing sounds and perhaps promising to bring candy when we return with the nice people in the white coats.

Sadly, all our vows of proper verbal behavior in the future will do nothing to eradicate the mess we created in the past. Therefore, to assist those few still hoping to make sense of the world they must live in, I humbly offer my services as lexicographer, providing periodic lists of those words and phrases that have escaped and are preparing to betray such innocents as you, Dear Reader. I will accept no payment for these efforts, heroic though they may be. However, should you encounter me on the street and wish to reward my efforts with a smidgen of foie gras, a sip of fine burgundy or a spare Twinkie, who am I to deny altruism its due.

The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary (Part the First)

Beer: A word once denoting a beverage associated with hot days or hard work, its meaning has been usurped by vacationing college students and obese ballpark residents. Beer is now to them as a ball is to a dog – the reason they will Fetch, Carry, Roll over, Lie down and Play Dead. Sadly, dogs do it with more class and with less noise.

Mayor: Once a title referring to the holder of municipal office, in Canadian cities of more than 3 million the word now means “has been or is about to be arrested.”

Liberalism: In an apparent Hollywood variation, Liberals are those who condemn Paula Deen’s use of the “N” word but remain silent as Alec Baldwin launches an obscenity-laced violence-filled homophobic rant viewed by millions on Twitter. This should be regarded as a very liberal definition of liberalism.

(Yes, I promised a dictionary. No, I did not promise it would be alphabetical.)

Leak: An unfortunate event occurring when levees are badly built, children are tickled and narcissists are left unsupervised near microphones.

Religion: While traditional notions concerning love, charity and hope still dominate, in both the Christian and Islamic worlds there are now large groups believing that religion comes in the box marked “Guns”.

God’s Work: is what happens when they find the box marked “Bullets”.

Underwear: Once a garment worn beneath outerwear for reasons of support, comfort and hygiene, it appears to have become an optional accessory, like cuff links or good manners. On its own it is now deemed suitable attire for talk show guest appearances. Once used, it can apparently be sent through the mail as a souvenir or a greeting card. The Elegant Bastard requests that all friends continue to express their affections through Hallmark rather than via Hanes

Pope: A title not yet bestowed on either Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, but both gentlemen seem to believe that this is a temporary oversight soon to be corrected.

Weather Forecasts: In newspapers arranged from front to back according to likely accuracy, these are found just after the horoscopes and just before the ad for Harold the Jewelry Buyer

Pakistan: A chaotic mix of tribes, clans, hates and prejudices that periodically pretends to have an interest in democracy. This is done to ensure that other countries keep sending the money needed to finance the tribes, clans, hates and prejudices.

Afghanistan: An alternative spelling of Pakistan

F#ck: For several hundred years, the word meant to have sexual intercourse. Since people who regularly have sexual intercourse do not spend all their waking moments talking about sexual intercourse, the word occurred less frequently than the act. It now appears that many many millions are having little intercourse of any sort since the word is being used more frequently than the verb “to be”. It can now mean “Oh my goodness” or “Are you teasing me?” or “Please go somewhere else and pass away” or “No I don’t want broccoli” – in other words, almost anything other than “have intercourse”. This state of affairs is unlikely to change as it can only really be resolved by better sex education and/or better sex and very few governments are willing to provide either.

Waiting Room: A space set aside for 1) those wishing to be ignored by medical professionals 2) those too cheap to buy their own magazines and 3) those waiting to be invited to live in countries no one else wants to visit.

Better: For most Torontonians, the word used to describe conditions everywhere else.

So ends Part One. The Elegant Bastard would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of others who are committed to the same great cause. We will return but for now we sheathe our semantic swords. Heroics are a tiring avocation and the really good ice cream has just arrived.

And those wishing to read the inspiring and heroic tale of the Elegant Bastard’s triumph over the biggest of the Big Banks may do so here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-58