Things Jane Says: Words You Don't Want to Hear

Things you get called and what they mean.
Publish date:
October 28, 2012

"You are a gentleman and a scholar." Jane

Although quick Google searches tracing the origin of this phrase will tell you that Holden Caulfield uses it mockingly in Catcher in the Rye, I don’t think that Jane is doing so here. And even though other searches might cite the gentleman and scholar comment as either one of the highest regard or, inversely, a form of noting someone has done the bare minimum to please another, I’ve always found that being called a gentleman straps me into some traditional continuum of kindness, whereby I become the one who opens doors for others, checks in on his friends and family, and can be counted on to be nice, even in a situation that is not so nice (though this not the case; I will walk the ____ out of a room I don’t like being in). But rather than breaking up the word into just gentle and man, let’s dissect it even more etymologically, in that a gentleman (not a gent, mind you, that’s another story) is patient but straightforward, accommodating yet candid, or just straight up in-the-moment-attending-to-the-presence-of-others. Add scholar to that and you have a sense of tenure in the shifting contours of kindness ... or a sap who knows how to armor the minimum. I’m less concerned by what being a gentleman and a scholar means than I am intrigued by what it means to be called anything more than once, or often, and if this in fact means that we really do embody certain characteristics symbolic of a root definition. Think about all the words you use only when you mean them, when you can feel the past of that word running a long line through your bones and out through your breath. Now, how often do you use these words and at what point do they mutter themselves into the tiresome arena of meaninglessness? Also, what are you called the most, whether this ranges from asshole to nice?When I taught writing and rhetoric to college students one of the first demands I made was that I never wanted to see the word interesting used in an essay and, if it could be helped, in class discussion. I think I was taken aback by its initiation into the hackneyed throng of fillers, as useless as “like” and “um.” It was quickly becoming the most noticeable way students and even non-students began sentences or veered away from responding in full. Additionally, I think I had a psychological detachment from the word; I was at a point where interest could, aesthetically, be found in anything, so saying something was interesting was just noting the obvious, which is obviously a waste of time. When words start losing meaning how do we replace them? Do we need to? Do we take on the Spanish translation to flavor usage, or the French to pawn ourselves off as scholarly? At the beginning of each of those long-past semesters, after my diatribe on the word interesting, I’d always ask the class to think of two words, per person, that they felt no longer had meaning for them or which were overused to the point of becoming less of a word and more of an ism, filler, or loaf. What struck me the most was that the list became more about words whose meanings are too dense to begin with, a list it wouldn’t be hard to guess the contents of, a list abounding with words spat to describe the indescribable: hate, war, love, beauty, etc. However, when words like “interesting” and “good” and “great” and “like” and “obviously” came onto the list the discussion always opened up for the better—the grinders and language axes came out to muddle and incise. Following an initial list we’d compose a subcategorized list for each word on what it actually meant and then tried to find better ways to produce words or sentences for these feelings and ideas.

Finding a better way to say something isn’t an easy thing to do and I’m going to guess that even the best writers have one part of their lives they cannot communicate well, at least by way of wording. To be clear, I’m not harping on anyone’s inability to say what it is they mean, but I am challenging people to find substantive ways of doing so, and I believe you don’t have to be a wordsmith or writer to do this. It’s important to note that finding the way to say something isn’t the same thing as saying the right thing—it’s less for the betterment of a crowd and more for the clarity of your own understanding (do you want to feel a word? I do). In the grand scheme of things (aside from words there are also plenty of catch-phrases that become expendable—what are yours? Mine is “in the grand scheme of things”) we all might agree that the most important things might get said in silence or because of their importance cannot be communicated with words. But let’s not go down into that ravine, it stinks of Zen acceptance, and if you’re with me now, or even on this site, you believe in words and a writer’s ability to use them to provoke response, or prod feelings words have yet to find the threads for, so acceptance and silence can step away for now, away. This past week Jane and I were talking about memory—something she’ll be writing about on here soon—and in a way we were talking about conjuring up what we know is within us: extracting thoughts through words. Immediately, I had this comical little vision of all words evolving as tiny cartoonic people getting in line to jump out of the plane which is our mouth, making their patterns up so that by the time they hit the ground they’re in shape and line to run and spread and occupy, as if there comes a time, a turn, for all of them to get out and frisk civilization. But we don’t work this way. We work with energy and focus and in speech hope for that unguarded aplomb where words arrive without an overtly conscious cast for them—oh that inward cast! The casting is enjoyable too, as it allows us to search for a word we know we have digested and can gurgle back up to the surface where it can sling, snag, saddle, soothe, sort, and slosh, where it can be felt, belonging.And perhaps that’s just it, that words belong, are here/there to be used, and because language starts with what we overhear or hear the most it becomes easy to wear and tear them into monotony. And I’m not calling for supplements either, for the thesaurus version of words, but instead trying to figure out what the sentence behind the word is, the source of the material. Verbosity aside, it’s nice to be able to explain what one means by saying something is interesting; it’s what responsible teachers do to challenge students and what curious thinkers and speakers do to understand ideas and communicate more efficiently.

Now, after another theoretical investigation I must pause to hear about what it is you are called, why you think you’re called it, and if it rings true?

Also, I’d like to know what two words you’d never like to see or hear again? Because that’s what’s really interesting, at least in the grand scheme of things.