Language evolves; that’s what I like about it. New words keep popping up all the time so we don’t have to stick with the mouldy old mossbacks we were taught in school. Some of them, like say, LOL, are marvels of brevity and look good on a page even though nobody over forty has the slightest idea what they mean. Others, such as ‘choss’ are kind of catchy and begging to be used. Personally, I prefer the long ones because they presuppose some erudition and some of that clings to the user like an expensive scarf. I’m thinking here of ‘isms’ I suppose: eliminationism, or perhaps internalism -I don’t want to appear choosy. And yet I’m kind of partial to the ‘inters’ too –‘internaut’ springs to mind- however they do seem a little New Age and that’s passé now. But some are simply clever assonances such as Masshole (pardon the inadvertent phonological resemblance); pithy combos of different things of which ‘vog’ is a good example; or borrowed words like ‘tenderpreneur’, or even ‘yaar’ –which rolls nicely off the tongue.
But we have to be careful in our attributions, though. Most young people assume that words arise fully-baked from social media –spelled wrong, perhaps, but they’re easier to write that way. Texting does that to a language, of course, but I want to point to an even more fertile womb of neology: Retirement.
Neologisms are the undisputed prerogatives of the aged –make that elders. In fact, vocabulary, and its bejewelled use of new and hitherto forgotten permutations, are almost the sine qua non of respect for seniors. After a certain point, we simply cannot remember the common word for something in time to complete a sentence, so we have to futz around in the pot of syllables and come up with something tout suite –and make it sound natural. If you can perfect that, you are an elder; if not, you are just another doddery old person to be humoured. But sometimes we are judged, rather shamelessly I think, on our verbal performance -our repartees and the like. Our capacity to engage… In fact, inability to come up with a clever response is one of the key criteria that families use to register their parents in Homes –in loco parentis or something.
I can think of no better place to experience this semantic slight-of-tongue than in a Starbuck’s after the morning rush hour, when the kids and the workies have left enough tables for those of us who don’t eat and run –or can’t… I sometimes sit in the corner pretending I’m reading my iPhone and try to remember the words. I found myself inadvertently swimming in waters beyond my usual depth last week, when Joshua accosted me in the washroom lineup, however.
“You too?” he said a little too loudly. As a rule, I don’t like to let the baristas in on my personal activities. I figure their duties are to serve me, not watch me. Joshua was unfazed, however. He seemed to revel in the attention.
“I think the heightened lavatorial requirements are a function of age, don’t you?” I said, trying to impress him with my command of bathroom words.
He shook his head. “Prostate,” he replied, trying to outmaneuver me by switching into anatomical mode. “It’s a function of hypertrophic dissonance.”
Whoa. This was getting serious. I nodded quickly to let him think I agreed, but actually it was to buy some time to find another, better phrase. “Obstructive uropathy can certainly be a problem when you’re over a certain age, eh?”
His eyes narrowed; the game was on. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, drawing out his words in an all too obvious delaying tactic. “Coffee is a diuretic even for the testosterone replete.”
I awarded him a slow, contemplative nod. “But they seem to come with larger holding tanks, don’t you think. There’s no one in this line who hasn’t fall’n into his sere, or his yellow leaf.” Shakespeare usually trumps, and I could see him stagger mentally for a moment.
Then the quick twinkling in his eyes. “So must we only look to have curses, not loud but deep, or mouth honor…?”
He knew he had me on that – you only get to quote Shakespeare once each from the same soliloquy. I lowered my head, so it must have looked to him as if I were speaking through my eyebrows –a Ciceronian technique I hope he caught. “Well, at least I’m not standing here in need and desperation; I’ve come prophylactically. Better three hours too soon, than a minute too late,” I said, but I knew in that moment he had me. I’d used the Bard twice, albeit this time from The Merry Wives of Windsor which I figured he’d never read.
I could see triumph in his eyes as words formed slowly on his lips. They were peeking out from inside his mouth, eager to slice me to the ground when the toilet door opened and an old man sauntered out casually feeling to check if he’d remembered to close his fly. Joshua was next in line; he had no choice but to leave me there, bleeding, but not defeated.
As the door closed behind him, I saw my opportunity to escape mortal combat, and took another road to leave ‘just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear’. And as I left Starbuck’s I couldn’t help feeling sad. I would have had him on that one…