As I See It
Say What?
By Jill Chapin
Apr 23, 2006 - 5:20:00 PM

Have you ever noticed how our vocabulary has somewhat eroded over the years? Even as our dictionaries have grown larger with the addition of slang words that are now woven into our general vernacular, too many of us prefer to fall back on the time-worn basics in our language repertoire.

For instance, don't you find it remarkable that so many negative emotions are expressed so frequently and with such ease by simply calling forth the "f " word? That obscenity crosses over into most parts of speech, flowing freely from a noun, as in "You dumb f...," to an adjective, as in "you idiot," to a verb, as in "F... him." Actually, so many emotions are conveyed by so few expletives that it is remarkable how we can maintain the ability to differentiate among the subtle nuances in meaning when conversing with others. Or can we? Maybe we have lost a greater measure of understanding between each other than we realize.

Perhaps we are witnessing a decline in intellect and civility, and an increase in laziness. More likely it is a combination of all three, and they add up to a diminution of verbal repartee, especially when your emotions run from angry, insulted or hurt, to any number of unpleasant feelings. It's too bad, because the right phrasing of common polite words, arranged just so, can inflict a cut to the psyche that is not only dramatically more effective, but also far more entertaining. And the burst of laughter those words would evoke from your listening audience would go far in cooling off your temper.

For instance, the following are some authentic comebacks expressed by those who were, shall we say, not holding the warmest regards for the objects of their disaffection. See for yourself how unimaginative we have become, compared to our compatriots from the past. idiot: Used to describe one who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But Winston Churchill, feeling the same way, opined: "A modest little person, with much to be modest about."

Or Walter Kerr who explained: "He had delusions of adequacy."

Forrest Tucker's is another gem: "He loves nature in spite of what it did to him."

Finally, Billy Wilder's is a delight: "He had Van Gogh's ear for music."

F... him: Used to describe intense feelings of dislike and an underlying need to exact vengeance. But how much more delicious would it be to offer Stephen Bishop's zinger: "I feel so miserable without you, it's almost like having you here." Or Irvin Cobb's: "I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial." Groucho Marx is another champion at displaying what seems to be fine etiquette at first glance: "I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."

It takes a little forethought and an acquired comfort level to be able to quickly rearrange familiar words to convey an utterly clever and profanity-free response. Can we begin to imagine how much more scintillating and electrifying our conversations would be if every other word was not simply a boring, grossly overused excuse for a retort?

So if you're ever in the mood sometime to playfully dis someone (I mean criticize or ridicule or denounce), file Oscar Wilde's line away for future use: "He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends." You'll either be the life of the party or the brunt of one of Samuel Johnson's best lines: "He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others."

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