Home > Critic-At-Large > Lost Languages and Old Relics
Lost Languages and Old Relics
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's been reassuring to discover that many of my older friends share the same peculiar habit that I do when it comes to texting — no matter how brief or hurried the message may be, we make sure to spell out every word correctly and to use all proper forms of punctuation. For the generation raised on texting, this is patently ridiculous — most teenagers text thousands of times every month and it'd be stupid for them to devote so much care to their communications. But I (and my friends) can't help it — it's almost a compulsive thing, to make sure that each text would please the exacting fourth-grade grammar teacher that exists in our memories. I'd like to point out here that I have a cheapo, flip-phone with no time-saving keyboard and so often the process of texting can become annoyingly exhaustive. Still, it's what I do, and I can't imagine ever deviating from the practice.
Believe me, there's no joy in admitting this — I'd like to pretend that my grammar-Nazi beliefs makes me somehow morally superior to the careless "LOL" barbarians out there, that I'm on the front lines against the rising hordes, but I know that that's not true. It's simply a silly, inflexible practice that makes absolutely no sense. There are times when I almost say to myself, Come on, Chris, go ahead and live a little — use "8" instead of "ate," forget the period, don't worry about that apostrophe separating the "n" and the "t," no one will know. But I can't do it. Even in the privacy of my own cell phone communiques, I remain an intractable old follower of the rules.
For whatever reason, whether it's my parochial school background or my pre-computer age upbringing, I still grimace whenever I see egregious misuses of the English language. Anywhere. God knows I've never been a particularly sound technician in my own writing, and I'm sure that most of my essays would get carved up by "Elements of Style" acolytes and true grammarians. Still, though, I do give it the old college try, which puts me miles ahead of most writers of contemporary discourse. Every time I jump on any social media I'm astonished at how little familiarity most writers seem to have with the English language. I know one shouldn't go looking to Facebook and Twitter for erudition and scholarship; still, it's remarkable how poorly equipped most people are to express themselves there. I know bad spelling and punctuation doesn't necessarily mean that the writers are idiots, but that's certainly the first word that comes to my lips when I read a particularly mangled bit of writing.
I've always been an omnivorous reader and one of the problems with that is that I constantly judge the quality of whatever I'm reading. It's almost a curse. I read trade journals, horoscopes, obituaries, bus schedules, lost-dog flyers, community newsletters, real estate calendars, business magazines and all the while I'm going, Eh, that doesn't work or Gosh, that was worded well. I wish I could just let all those words wash over me, without judgment, that I could read benignly, but that's not how I'm put together. I still view the utilization of language as a secret craft that I want to get better at, and so I find myself continuously examining even the most innocuous publications for pointers, even the "how not to" kind.
Sometimes you discover something in those obscure, left-field writings that makes you happy to be alive. I still remember encountering a bus guide in Minneapolis, in 1986, and in the section regarding what packages were allowed on buses, the guide said, "On Metro Transit buses, packages smaller that 2 x 4 feet are allowed to be transported. If your package happens to be a tree, please don't bring it on the bus." This passage made me happy on so many levels, and I remember laughing all the way to my stop. I imagined some razor-sharp, bright-eyed rhetorician at his desk in the Metro Transit building, putting his all into these mostly ignored guides while awaiting the call from the Guthrie Theatre and his recent submission's fate. It's funny, this bit of writing made me think better of the city — I was seriously thinking about moving to Minneapolis at the time, and on the "plus" side in my mind, in addition to the city's great theatre and music, was that guy's words: I figured, if the city allows this kind of whimsy in their public transportation manuals, it's gotta be a cool place to live.
Sometimes you'll discover something so disturbing that you're not sure what to make of it. I'm perversely addicted to reading obituaries in the daily newspaper, and I'll never forget reading one in The Journal from 2005 — the obit gave the guys name, age, where he worked, his survivors, etc, and then it said, "John Doe was a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan." Holy Hell! I couldn't believe what I was reading. I cut that obit out and kept it, showing it to friends who were always as surprised as I was to see that in print. This was 2005, not 1935, for heaven's sakes. I felt that reading that obituary was suddenly like reading something from Faulkner.
I have to admit, I get a kick out of the various euphemisms that obit writers use for "died." "Passed away," is the most popular, though I've seen a lot of "was called to the Lord" or "was called home on," etc. "Crossed the finish line" was one of the oddest, as was a recent "John Doe died poetically, surrounded by family." Poetically? I know family members are writing these things, and trying to take the sting out of their loss, but still, poetically? And I'm certain that it's morally indefensible for me to critique these, but still: Poetically?
Next to the obituaries in daily newspapers you'll sometimes find "Tributes" to fallen friends and family, and reading those can often make you feel you've just discovered something by Kafka or Ionesco or Kurt Vonnegut. It is unfortunate that many of them are written in the poetic style of Joyce Kilmer, the guy who wrote "Trees," ("I think that I shall never see. . . "), so you get a lot of rhyming couplets like "Losing you is a pain that makes our hearts burst/But the Lord always seem to take the good ones first." You read a dozen or so of these heartfelt tributes and you don't know what to think. Awesome? Horrible? I'm still not sure. But it's guaranteed that I'll keep reading them, that I'll never vacate my post as the critic of the obscure, so when I figure it out, I'll certainly let you know.