April 2018

Thursday, January 26, 2012


I have studied four foreign languages, and though I know some words in each language, I'm not fluent in any of them.

In middle school and later in college, I studied French. I remember, "Bonjour" and "Il ne marche pas" (It doesn't work--I used that one a bit when I travelled on the trains in France.) I also remember, of course,"Je t'aime," the most important romantic expression in the most romantic language. I also recall some monologue about going to the post office for "timbres," which I believe are stamps. (My twin friends Ellen and Donna, now in their 50s can still recite a monologue from their high school French class.)

In high school, I studied Latin, which is still a dead language to me.

For the past twenty years, I've studied Spanish, and at one point my Spanish was good enough to explain artificial insemination to a couple of Salvordan men curious about how lesbians get pregnant. I remember stumbling, though, on "turkey baster."

In those same twenty years, I've studied Teenspeak, which is different for every generation because each generation has its own technologies and concerns. In the sixties,  Simon and Garfunkel were "feelin' groovy"; in the seventies, "Stairway to Heaven" was cool at the end  of a dance; in the eighties, maybe Phil Collins was bad in that good way, and in the nineties Pearl Jam rocked the house (to read my high school journalist's headlines, you would think that everything rocked); in the 00s the Dixie Chicks emerged, and so did Brittny Spears (maybe that was the decade of the belly buttons.)  I'm not sure who is dirty or foul or filthy or whatever means groovy now.

Teaching in the suburbs in the 1990s, I learned suburban Teenspeak, so I learned that "rims" were wheels and "kicks" were sneakers.

When Ann and I first moved to the urban Central District in Seattlle, we didn't speak the teen language here. One afternoon about fifteen years ago, we walked past an animated discussion among teen boys in a nearby driveway. Because we knew from the suburbs that "kicks" were shoes, we had a context and could infer that when they talked about "Jordans," they were talking about sneakers, but though we knew the main topic and we could translate their enthusiasm, we had no idea what they were saying.

In the 2000s, teenagers in my LA class argued about whether "fo'shizzle" was offensive or not and whether it was appropriate for school. Some insisted that it was and others that it was not. It was a fiery discussion, yet another discussion among teens where I really didn't know what they were talking about.

Perhaps this will be my era of adult neologisms. Last week, my friend Jerry told me about a son who "catastrophizes." This is my favorite new new word. (That's not a typo...I mean new new since I think it's new to both me and the language.)

I should use it in context so that you will understand it: Fox News, all T.V. news, it seems, catastrophizes daily events, looking here and yon for the most explosive fires, the cutest kitten stuck in the tallest tree, and the car crash with the worst dents in the most cars."

If you're not sure about "yon," ask your Grandpa--or any Southerner.

1 comment:

  1. Ummm, just one correction: it's not the son who catastrophizes, its JERRY! The boys don't need to, since Jerry has always taken care of that for them. :)


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