Sunday, November 8, 2009

To the moon

As I was re-chewing a book called "The First WORD: The Search for the Origins of Language," I came up short against a phrase author Christine Kenneally used: "The language SUITE." Of course, she meant the whole thing, the total collection of stuff that the speaker of a language can call on, the vocabulary, the grammar, the intonation, and all.

But my mind, that nasty, independent thing that it is, went off in its own direction. I thought of an old guy, entering a large hotel's collection of rooms, spreading his arms and saying: "How suite it is!" Then I imagined somebody else, a young bellhop, say, one that never had seen that old TV show about a goofy bus-driving fat every-man who would spread his ample arms and tell his wife, Alice, "How sweet it is!" And I imagined the young guy thinking: "Hey, suite sounds like sweet, OK, but is this supposed to be funny?"

But imagine that the young bellhop hears this "joke" from old farts again and again. He starts to think: Is something else going on here?

Finally, after hearing this dumb joke again and again, he asks one of those old farts, "What is this joke about?" The old fart asks: "Do you know about Jackie Gleason?"

It turns out that the joke, such as it is, only is funny to the extent that it bleeds comedy off the old sitcom. Those old folks are not smiling at somebody's wit, but at the wit of 50 years ago.

"How sweet it is" is a dying joke, on its last legs, as disappearing as the phrase, "To the moon!"

When I was young, I would read "language mavens" like Edwin Newman spreading fear that the English language was deteriorating. These days I laugh at them. The English language comes and goes. But it always grows more than not. Language grows, with every rap song, every book, every sitcom. To the moon, Ed.


  1. Gen X has Seinfeldisms such as sponge worthy, double dip and close talker. I'm sure when I'm an old man I'll be uttering these phrase to the befuddled looks of the young men.

  2. And 23 Skidoo to you. Languages evolve over time -- but it's scary to be old enough to see some of the changes. Case in point: American English is losing the long-E version of the common article "the." We were taught in grammar school (aha!) that you use the long-E before words beginning with a vowel and the short-E before words that start with a consonant. But even many professional speakers on radio and TV are now using the short-E pronunciation all the time. It's jarring to these almost 60-year-old ears.