Magazine | August 1, 2011, Issue

Softboiled Speech

There is nothing quite like a letter from an NR reader. Here’s the one that gave me the idea for this column:

I note with concern your use of “gay” in reference to homosexuality. While I remain confident that you are not moving to the dark side, your use of any euphemism is off-putting. You have stood like a beacon against the forces of evil and made compromise a concept fit only for the weak. One hopes that you remain steadfast, as the purveyors of political correctness are relentless in their quest to make words meaningless through, among other vehicles, the glorification of euphemisms.

First off, “gay” is not a euphemism but a word used by a particular group to mean what they want it to mean, making it more properly an example of “argot.” Nineteenth-century female prostitutes used it of themselves until male homosexuals adopted it as an ironic foil against the scathing obscenities and ponderous medical terms used by the straight world to describe them. Intentionally using a word in its contrary sense is called “antiphrasis.”

The word also suggests the compromise language called “lingua franca.” Heretofore “gay” referred solely to men, never to lesbians, for obvious reasons. Having been blessed with not one but two elegant names from the ancient world of classical Greece (the other is “sapphic”), lesbians didn’t need an ironic foil but now they are gladly throwing away their 6,000-year-old nomenclatural advantage and calling themselves “gay” anyway. Is this simply a bow to American dumbing-down? Or are girls storming the treehouse again, ever eager to trade superiority for equality in that self-defeating way of pseudo-liberated women? It’s politically incorrect even to entertain such thoughts now but the subconscious mind is still free.

All that being said, like anyone who deals in word counts, spillover copy, or headline writing, I welcome the word “gay” because it’s short. This, not cultural trends, is why it has caught on in the conservative print media.

Most of the letters I get now are like the one cited above. People rarely write me about politics and the state of the Union anymore. Instead they bemoan the state of the English language and urge me to stand athwart and shine my beacon on whatever it is that is driving them around the bend. What they — and America — need is a sacrosanct institution like the Académie Française. If anyone did to the French language what we do to ours, the “Immortals,” as members of the French Academy are called, would send somebody around to kneecap him. But we can’t do that because the only sacrosanct French institution we have is égalité, which the French invented and then promptly forgot about. Every American’s gotta right to talk like he do, so my correspondents are stuck with me.

They always ask what is the up with which I will not put, but it’s more than any particular grammatical error. I sense that the entire language is sinking into what is poetically known as a “Slough of Despond.” We are bogged down in repetition, seemingly under the spell of some inner compulsion to repeat ourselves and each other until we turn mere clichés into dismal invocations; “suck the oxygen out of the room” and “kick the can down the road” are so overused that they have begun to sound like mutterings from a psych ward. We are driven to say meaningless things such as “any and all” in public apologies, and what once went without saying now gets said over and over: We used to invoke just one generation of sacred cows but now we make sure we say “our children and grandchildren.” We are incapable of leaving anything to the imagination and loath to leave anything out. Maniacal thoroughness has become our national verbal ideal.

#page#When Chris Wallace asked Michele Bachmann “Are you a flake?” she replied with an oral résumé listing her college degree, law-school degree, master’s degree, job history, her age, her biological children, her regiment of foster children, and her vision of the future. Asked by Charlie Rose to rate her performance, Time’s Mark Halperin called her breathless ramble “pitch-perfect.”

How did we get into our language crisis? Whence the wordiness, repetition, listing, compulsive inclusion, maniacal thoroughness, and rejection of imagination? I can name the precipitating culprit in two words: sexual revolution. Sexual repression is the best friend language has, but when you can say anything you end up saying everything.

This is not mere opinion on my part. British novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson maintained that the literary worthlessness of porn can be proved by transposing its style to a description of the boiling and eating of an egg.

I gave it a try:

I took the glistening, virginally white oval out of the fiercely bubbling cauldron of hot, hot, hot water and cupped my hand around it, feeling its contours with sensations of shimmering delight. I reached for my long, sturdy, battering egg knife and tapped. The shell slipped off and I touched the tender, moist, protein-swollen membranes of the secret softness. The steaming hot, ready, delectable egg burned my fingers but I thrust firmly with my rigid tool and inserted the erect blade. The lubricious, golden-yellow, ambrosial nectar of the pulsating, quickening core gushed out into my egg cup. I centered my mouth over the slickened surface of the gently curving silver spoon and ate, ate, ate while beneath me the egg writhed and screamed “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

I rest my case.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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