Here’s a conversation I have roughly 60 times a day at the grocery store in Portland:
Customer: How are you?
Me: Good. How are you?
Customer: Oh, I’m well. Thank you.
You might think I’m about to write about the monotony of the exchange, but I quite enjoy that for its own surrealistic moments. I think it’s fun to have the same conversation over and over again and change the intonation of your words to elicit new responses. I almost went to school for psychology, and I get bored a lot. What I hate is the word “well.” Let’s talk about people being too damned educated for their own good.
The other day, a guy came in with thick-rimmed glasses and some kind of band t-shirt, but nothing overtly overstated. He also paid with a debit card and not with his foodstamps Oregon Trail card. I was thinking, maybe this guy’s like me. He was probably raised working class, probably has an education, but a state-school education, maybe originally from the Midwest like a lot of PDX transplants. When we had the above conversation, he answered with, “I’m good,” and I switched up my script and replied with, “I’m so happy you just said ‘good’ and not ‘well.'” Here’s how I’m an asshole in this scenario, because it wasn’t totally clear to me at first. Dude looked confused. I went further, explained how I’m tired of even the street punks who come into the store and put on airs like they never used casual speech with their “well” talk. Dude still didn’t get it. Turned out he didn’t know one correct way to answer that question is with the adverb of “good,” which is well, as in, “I’m doing well.” (I have problems with this grammatical structure, as I believe that a state of being should be an exception, because we wouldn’t say “I am sadly,” now, would we? The issue is actually pretty complicated, so I’ll end my debate there for now.) Anyway, I was basically calling the guy out for being stupid, when I thought I was establishing a kinship. I suppose it would be like approaching a legless man, throwing my arms around him, and saying, “Yeah, man, ain’t nobody gonna force us to walk.” Or maybe not.
This whole overly grammatical thing I’ve been experiencing in Portland seems to stem primarily from middle-to-upper-class white people or twenty-somethings who were raised by middle-to-upper-class white people who think the more feathers they braid into their hair the more qualified they are to lead an army of self-proclaimed orphans of society. Reality says they just have to call home and ask for something. OK, so language, something some people see as fluid and evolving, seems to have hit a stasis when it comes to the above classes of people. Of course, language probably evolves within this class as well, but not to the extent it does elsewhere, and that seems problematic to me.
Take a look at this BBC article, titled, “Americanisms: 50 of your most noted examples.” It’s all about how stupid American language became when it split off from British English and evolved into its own utilitarian dialect. Here are a few choice quotes:
14. I caught myself saying “shopping cart” instead of shopping trolley today and was thoroughly disgusted with myself. I’ve never lived nor been to the US either. Graham Nicholson, Glasgow
15. What kind of word is “gotten“? It makes me shudder. Julie Marrs, Warrington
17. “Bangs” for a fringe of the hair. Philip Hall, Nottingham
22. Train station. My teeth are on edge every time I hear it. Who started it? Have they been punished? Chris Capewell, Queens Park, London
36. Surely the most irritating is: “You do the Math.” Math? It’s MATHS. Michael Zealey, London
OK, so that last one made me laugh out loud, and that’s exactly what I would do if someone told me to do “the Maths.” If you read the article, and the comments, it’s pretty amazing how ignorant we, or at least I, have been to the evolution of our language. But it also sheds light on what kind of power language has and what kind of anger it can elicit. But it’s words. It is seriously just a string of abstract concepts with self-imposed meanings attached. I love language. I take it seriously. But I’m also willing to let it be what it is and develop further for its only purpose, which is to allow one person to communicate the garble of shit in their heads to another person. And I haven’t always been like this.
Back in my freshman year of high school, I was in an honors English class at a private Catholic school (I was the token poor kid raised by her grandparents, etc.), and my teacher was so strict that to this day, I still spell dialogue and catalogue with their “gue” ending, even though Firefox and Word consistently tell me I’m wrong. And even though I wasn’t a rich or even a middle-class white kid, I was surrounded by ONLY rich or middle-class white kids, and they and their families did not talk like how my family did at home. We had/have a great nasally Michigander accent, and we say, “ain’t” and “cuz” and words that we’ve probably made up to quantify the elation we felt when the Whammy water skied across the television. But I learned English from my private Catholic school, and I also learned a kind of anti-diversity that bordered on almost blatant racism, which is why when I had to pick a research project to write my big semester-end paper, and I chose, “Why Ebonics Is Killing the English Language,” which was riddled with divisive thoughts from Bill Cosby, it was simply a HIT!!! I was finally able to give a reason for being irritated with how non-white, non-rich people talked, and the reason was because it was killing our language. And that is fucked up. Like, whoa. Thinking back on it now, I’m pretty ashamed with the arguments I was building as a wannabe 13-year-old asshole. Back then, Conservatives were spreading bullshit propaganda that Ebonics was going to be taught in our schools, and your white children would have to learn it, and then black people would take over the world. They never actually said anything about black people, though. They were careful enough to couch behind “urban.” Uh…pretty sure they weren’t as worried about white trash like me as they were about black people coming into power. Clearly, putting white trash into power isn’t a problem for our American culture. It’s just not the right white trash.
Anyway, I’ve done a complete 180. I’m done with stagnant language, and I’m done with people who think they can control language, and even if the people who come into the grocery store have none of this in mind, it should be in all of our minds. Do we want to be like the griping assholes in that BBC article? Or do we want language to return to its original intent, to leave the power and hierarchical bullshit behind? Perhaps none of this is related, but it is in my mind.
I’m pretty good today.