One of the best songs ever written by the great Neil Young is the amazing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young track, “Helpless,” which includes the line “big birds flying across the sky.” It conjures up images of herons or cranes or eagles or owls, “throwing shadows on our eyes.” It’s one of Neil’s most poetic and poignant images, and perfectly captures the feeling of being helpless.
Now, let’s look at what one misplaced apostrophe can do, and change birds to bird’s. Neil’s powerful paean to heartbreak and loneliness becomes a silly sentiment about a yellow-feathered Sesame Street character clumsily taking flight.
Such is the power of punctuation and typing. An inadvertent space can change the kindly and distinguished therapist into the menacing and sinister the rapist. An unintended “i” inserted at the right place can change a realty agent into something more mysterious and powerful, a reality agent. Leave out the letter “l” and a minor vocal inflection can turn into a deadly and life threatening vocal infection.
Maddening as these can be, they are but one of many reasons why I love the English language. That it has room for Ogden Nash silliness, Ernest Hemmingway efficiency, William Faulkner bombast, and so much more, is truly remarkable.
But it wasn’t these brilliant masters who first made me fall in love with language. Rather, it was one of its great butchers. Nobody could carve up the English language like my dad.
There were several categories of the mayhem he’d inflict. Among my favorites:
- Adding an extra random syllable wherever he deemed fit. Vibrate and arthritis may seem like perfectly fine words, but not for my dad – they became, instead, vi-a-brate and Arthur-ritis.
- Strangely inexplicable word choices. More than once, while deer hunting together, we’d come to a nice hill or ridge and he’d whisper to me, “This looks like a good spot. I’m going to stand here – why don’t you go out about one hundred yards or so and make a half circle around me, maybe you’ll kick something up. Don’t go too fast or too slow. Just sashay thru the brush in a big half circle.” The first time I heard this, I went home and looked up the meaning of sashay in the dictionary:
Sashay: to walk in an ostentatious yet casual manner, typically with exaggerated movements of the hips and shoulders.
Not the kind of lingo you’d expect while deer hunting with a burly truck driver. If anybody reading this happened to be in the Chippewa County forest about forty years ago and thought you saw a guy dressed in blaze orange walking though the brush in an ostentatious yet casual manner, with exaggerated movements of the hips and shoulders, you weren’t hallucinating – that’d have been yours truly.
Another favorite strange word he’d use from time to time was monkeyshines. This was used whenever I was goofing off and getting on his nerves, forcing him to say “knock off the monkeyshines.” I’d heard the word so often that at one point in my childhood I became convinced that when I grew up, I’d make my living in the tropic, illuminating primates.
- Mispronounced words: There were a number of these, but my all-time favorite was the time he was explaining a minor surgery he was scheduled for. When he got to the part about how they’d anesthetize him, he said “They’re gonna use Anastasia to knock me out.” I immediately formed images of the missing daughter of the Russian Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandria bonking my dad on his head with a hammer.
It’s little wonder that I grew up loving puns and playing with words.
Here are some bonus sentences I’ve written without having a story to use them in:
He’d heard of the great herds of cattle, but had no concept of them until he rode the road and saw the herdsmen who drove droves of the great beasts into town.
His shirt was wet with sweet sweat.
While he napped, she grabbed the broom and cleaned up. In other words, she swept while he slept.
It was so warm out that Fido, being a hot dog, had no appetite for a hot dog.
Horst, the singing cowboy, lost his voice. It seems that Horst grew hoarse on his horse.
She sang a hymn to him. That Jim wasn’t here when he sang his hymn to her is neither here nor there – even if he was here, she couldn’t hear what he sang to her.