A friend recently told me that she could not find my blog my Googling. I’m not sure what key words she used, so I tried it myself and found this interesting Ted Blog on explaining the origins of 13 common English words. http://blog.ted.com/2013/06/24/attention-word-nerds-13-mysteries-of-the-vernacular-solved/ Enjoy, fellow word nerds!
One of Dad’s favorite topics, of which I am reminded almost every time I see him and about which I should have written long ago, is “the social contract.” This was another of his favorite themes upon which to expound before us kids and which we really did not understand until many years later. Basically, it boils down to two simple rules: 1) Root, hog, or die!, and 2) Don’t shit where you eat. For a long time, I wasn’t sure if the aforementioned “hog” was being used as an appositive; i.e. “If you don’t root, hog, you will die;” or as a verb, as in, “You have three choices: to root, to hog, or to die.” Now I understand that it is, indeed, the former, although the cynic in me still thinks the latter might apply in today’s world. So, if you don’t work to feed yourself, you will die. A quaint idea that seems to have fallen out of fashion, although it has stood many of us in good stead as a rule to live by. As for Rule #2, I believe the first time I heard my dad use this admonition it had to do with the dangerous and foolhardy liaison between a young man and the boss’s wife. There’s a literary device called “synesthesia” with which a writer creates a feeling or image by connecting and almost equating/confusing two sensory details; for example, a blue smell or a musical caress. Rule #2 applies synesthesia to bodily functions, thus delivering a vivid vernacular punch.
According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the noun “vernacular” is defined as, 1. “The native language of a country or region, esp. as distinct from literary language.” (I’m not sure where that leaves Faulkner, one of Dad’s literary heroes.) 2. “The nonstandard or substandard everyday speech of a country or region.” (It’s definitely nonstandard, but more like superstandard than substandard.) 3. “The idiom of a particular trade or profession.” (I’m pretty sure most retired dentists don’t talk like Dad does.) 4. “An idiomatic word, phrase, or expression.” (Or, manner of speech in general?) 5. The commonly used name of a plant or animal as distinguished from the taxonomic designation.” (While they don’t necessarily pertain to plants or animals, Dad’s got dozens of unique terms in his vocabulary, so much so that I find myself interpreting his speech into ordinary English for the uninitiated. For example, in explaining to a cardiologist the chain of events of a heart attack a few months ago, Dad talked about how the “gut wagon” had taken him to the hospital. Blank look on the doctor’s face. Translation: ambulance.)
As many of us did, my parents received innumerable phone calls during the recent election campaign cycle, and Dad was kvetching to me repeatedly about these political calls. I suggested he not answer them, since he has caller ID and can choose to answer a call coming from a unfamiliar number or whose identity is clearly the RNC or whoever. No, no, no passive aggression for him. He would answer, hoping it’s a warm body on the other end and not just a robo-call, so that he could “lay them out in velvet in the common vernacular.” What, exactly, he would say to the hapless volunteer on the other end of the line, he never specified, but I can imagine it went something like, “Sonny, (or Honey, depending), have you no self-respect? Working for those whores in Washington, pestering decent, elderly citizens in their homes at all hours of the day, trying to scare them with misinformation and lies so they will vote for your candidate? Do you think we can’t read, can’t make up our own minds about the issues? You know, most of us worked for a living and paid our taxes and kept our noses clean so that we could enjoy a comfortable retirement and pass along some of that prosperity to our children and grandchildren. But now, because of the irresponsible, no, criminal actions of those sons-a-bitches, your candidate included, in Washington, we are leaving our grandchildren a legacy of debt from which they will never extract themselves without great deprivation, or a bloody revolution. And you want me to tell you I’ll vote for that prattling fool who’s nothing but a damned politician that would say anything to get elected?” You get the idea. So, “lay them out in velvet” (think, corpse) is a phrase Dad uses for slaying someone with words. The “common vernacular” is not so common, but it is particular to him and the rest of the world be damned. Of course, his approach didn’t stop the phone calls or even slow them down, but it served to amuse him and fire up his passions, which is what keeps life interesting for all of us, at any age.
I’ve been talking about writing down for posterity the linguistic “pearls” that I grew up with for a long time; it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and get on with it. So, here goes! This blog is dedicated to my dad, William Joseph Pence, aka Bill Pence, Wild Bill, Doc, a true master of the vernacular language and from whom I acquired my love for language, through both his example and his DNA. When I told him that I was thinking about writing a blog about his use of language, his response was, “Blog! Ugh! What an ugly word! Don’t call it a blog; call it something else.” That sort of sums up Dad’s approach to language in general: make it up to suit yourself, but pay attention to how it sounds. It must satisfy some aesthetic of the ear that is quite subjective, but always right (because it is his own). Dad loves to quote Mark Twain, although I haven’t been able to verify this attribution, “Women shouldn’t swear. They know the words, but not the music.” Hence, the tagline of this, sorry Dad, blog. A blog is a blog, whether he likes it or not. And, as future posts will bear out, he has no trouble calling a spade a spade.