August 24, 2011

On The Use of Proper Language

A Note from a Non-Linguist (or would it be “A Note from an Un-Linguist,” or “from not a Linguist,” or “not a Note from a Linguist”?)

The Recent Paterfamilias has a favorite book he likes to read to his infant daughter. It’s a weird book. It’s a well-illustrated book, the artist of which was clearly heavily influenced by Picasso’s early-20th century newspaper cutout work, as well as by the paintings of Basquiat, as Jean-Michel’s iconic gold crown is featured fairly prominently. But the stories themselves are even more inventive. They’re parodies. Stories like: “Little Red Running Shorts,” and “Goldilocks and the Three Elephants,” and “The Boy who Cried Cow Paddy,” and other nonsensical fairy tales of this nature. The name of the book is The Stinky Cheese Man, the seminal work of John Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith, as I am sure my well-read public is already aware.

But as has been noted above, the stories in this book are weird ones. They are unorthodox. And they’re threatening to turn my little girl into a social pariah.

I have grown marginally concerned that exposing my offspring to fairy tale parodies might affect her inadvertently later. Like when her friends say something like, “Well, you know what happened to the ugly duckling, don’t you?” and she replies, “Yeah, sure, he grew up to be an ugly duck,” one can appreciate how she might be humiliated when the other conversant says, “What did you just say?” “Um, uh, ugh, nothing…?” And then I would have to hear about it when she got home from school, a teenage tirade about how, unlike she’d heard her entire time growing up, the ugly duckling, the true ugly duckling, did not, in fact, turn into a really ugly duck, but instead grew up to be a beautiful (see: vain, and intolerable) swan.

This is a real concern of mine.

My daughter’s mother found herself in a similar situation when she was about eleven. She was holding a conversation with some of her fellow middle schoolers and she, my wife, when referring to Xmas lights, mentioned a little something about “teevee dites.” Silence immediately set in and abounded. As one might expect, her friend said, “What did you just say?” “Um, uh, ugh, nothing…?”

When she got home, naturally she wanted some answers, proclaiming, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me they were called Christmas lights and not teevee dites?!!” The answer from her parents, of course, was what one might expect: “I’m sure we told you they were called Christmas lights.” “No, you didn’t.” “I’m certain we told you.” “I think I would have remembered something like that!” Naturally, my wife, even two decades later, is still annoyed about the teevee dites incident.

Everyone knows that families have their own terms for things, part of their own dysfunctional private language, but, if not informed, kids might very well go running off thinking that the term that’s used at home is, in fact, the term that’s used colloquially.

So, of course I don’t want my child to go off to school and, in all seriousness, refer to “The Story of Little Red Running Shorts,” or talk about how someone or something was acting like “a sacrificial koala” (a personally-invented idiom, not one from the aforementioned book). This is sure to draw a deafening silence, and then promptly get her laughed out of the lunchroom. Or, at the very best, looked at sideways. Thusly, because of this little book, my wife and I have felt it necessary to go out and get the real fairy tale books, or as many of them as could be found. If I willingly allow my poor baby to go off into public talking about “Jack’s Bean Problem” or “The Princess and the Bowling Ball,” I’m afraid I’d never be able to forgive myself.

A parent is obligated to tell his children the truth, as well as tell them the true stories, because otherwise he’ll have an idiot running around the playground and the amusement park and the college campus talking about Goldilocks and her elephants and sacrificial koalas and Little Red Running Shorts, and nobody in her entire Psych 101 class will have any clue as to what she might be talking about, but these same classmates will be sure to comment, when hanging out with their friends in “the quad” or “the commons” or “the cistern” that there was this crazy girl in their 9 a.m. lecture going on about “Cinderrumplestiltskin,” as though this were a normal thing and people were supposed to know what the hell she was talking about. “Oh, I know that girl,” they’ll reply. “She thinks that Christmas trees are covered with teevee dites.”
Laughter naturally follows.


Post a Comment