The baby has started saying Oh Shit. What’s more, she perfectly adapts the tone of her usually perky voice to mimic the sound of defeat she must hear when I use this expression. She uses it in the right places, and seems to genuinely grasp the sentiment: drops computer on the floor Oh Shit...head pops off a doll Oh Shit...spills her juice inside my shoe Oh Shit. There are about 300 instances in a day in the life of an average three year old when something goes terribly, terribly wrong. We try to correct her through fits of laughter, with our hands clamped over our mouths and our shoulders convulsing in silent hysterics. We instruct her to use the phrase “Oh Pickles” when something is not going her way. It’s not really working. Probably we should take it more seriously. Sometimes she catches herself: Oh Shit. But I’m not appose-ta say Shit, I say Pickles. Now you’re getting it, kid. Words matter.
As words go, Shit is on my list of what I call “grown-up” words. Meaning when you are an adult you will know how to use them responsibly. Like voting or drinking or watching on-line porn. The idea is that when you reach a certain age you will have the ability to measure the weight of your words and use them deliberately and with calculation. This ability will be the result of years of reading and writing and speaking and practicing with verbal and non-verbal communication under the close supervision of your elder tribesmen. You’ll know exactly how you feel and which words will best express that (I’ll come back to this thought in a minute, because this happens infrequently). I have another list called “bad” words. They are harmful words that label people and hurt feelings and imply hate and intolerance. You are familiar with these words, I’m sure. It’s important for me to clarify the difference between “grown-up” words and “bad” words. Bad words are the words I hope my kids will never say. Ever. And I hope they’ll tell anyone they hear saying these words that they are completely full of shit. However shocking it is to hear a tiny person exclaim Oh Shit in a tiny, defeated voice in the grocery store when she knocks over a shelf of 200 condoms (they really do package those things to look a lot like candy) it really doesn’t hurt anyone. What I was thinking was: Oh MY!! This is probably the most embarrassing thing that could have happened in this aisle of the grocery store, though it does call attention to the prophylactics for anyone who might have been looking for them, and simultaneously suggests that you might want to grab some as long as you’re here for anyone who wasn’t. What was about to come out of my mouth was, in all likelihood, Oh Shit, but she beat me to it.
Why do I reserve these “grown-up” words for later use, when they can vote and drink wine and rack up credit card debt? Because I truly believe words matter. Thoughts matter. Intentions and sentiment and all that psychic energy...they matter. And before you can summarize into one brief expletive the true nature of your sentiment, you must first learn to navigate language. Frustration is an early experience. It’s one of our first physical experiences. Life can be...uncomfortable. I have always considered language one of our greatest achievements. Within a few years, we learn that whimpering and wailing are not the best ways to express frustration, nor get our needs met. There is a more effective tool. Words. Sure, walking upright is handy for picking apples, and fire is very cool, especially in fall with marshmallows, and without thumbs I would not be the Regional Thumb Wrestling Champion of 2004. But words...that’s what really puts the sprinkles on my doughnut. I’m not a great orator, nor a great writer, but I worship those who are. Noam Chomsky is my Elvis. It’s ironic, this mention of achievement, because I sense a strange backslide in the area of language, an abbreviation of sorts, that has me wondering what happens when all the sentiment goes out of the words. If we use language as a means to communicate an idea, or a single concept, but we ditch allegory and dull the color of the thought by stripping it of any descriptive property, of any adjective, of any humor...well, why not just point at stuff and grunt with inflection? My hope for my kids, for all kids, is that they will be well-read and well-versed in actual, real live, face-to-face conversation, enough so that they can effectively communicate in expletives and essays alike. I am as guilty as the next guy of using text as a method of communication (though mine are usually too long and I’ve never caught on to the abbreviations), but my kids are not allowed to use text as a way of talking to me. Outside of arranging rides home from school, it’s off limits between us. I would be less horrified to receive a text from my kid that said: “Shitballs, motherfucker!” than one that said: “Mom, I asked out that girl I like and she said yes!” Some conversations are meant for face-time, or at the very least, over the phone so I can hear the intonation of a voice. Last week someone texted me a job offer. What??? Or should I say WTF??? I always think these things are best worked out over a beer, but a phone call would suffice. I’m old-fashioned, I know, but is this where we’re headed?
-House caught fire, dog is ok, ur album collection is destroyed
-Ur grandpa died, funeral 2sday, 11:30
-Ur adoption application has been approved. Pick up kid next Friday.
-Hi hon. Our application was approved. We pick up kid next Friday.
-Mom, need 2 borrow 5k. Send a ck, pls.
-imho, u r a tdb, nvr cma dh!
And where from there? If we get so used to “speaking” through abbreviated, non-emotive, less than complete sentences, what the hell is going to happen at Thanksgiving? I talk too much, I always have, so my family is safe. But what about yours? You remember how to talk to people, because you are of a generation where people had to talk to each other, if not in person, at least on a gigantic cell phone that had to be transported in it’s own backpack. My kids are not so lucky. Their phones will fit in their pockets or their watches and will avail them a form of communication that requires no emotional investment on their part, nor any real grasp of the magic words lend. I see text abbreviations as having the potential to affect language the way auto-tune and Protools have affected pop music. All the individuality has gone out of the sound. There’s nothing authentic there. Give me something. Horns! Gospel choirs! Big drums! Something. Give me Ernest Hemingway and run-on sentences that take up whole pages and say the same thing six ways without ever saying the same thing. Give me Moby fucking Dick.
I hope there will always be radical wordsmiths, clinging to their typewriters in a storm of digital abbreviations, scouring the attics and basements of abandoned office supply stores for pens, learning to make their own paper from rice. They’ll teach their kids to use words as a measure of thought. They will probably have a list of “grown-up” words and a list of “bad” words. In my imaginary dystopian version of this scene, all the words on my list of “bad” words have been eradicated from daily speech and exist only in Mark Twain novels and Lou Reed lyrics. My writer’s list of “bad” words that he hopes his kid will never say, ever, probably include OMG, BRB, CU and TMI. In his opinion, there is no such thing as too much information.