It happened again. A victim of my own upbringing, I corrected my wife’s grammar once too often. Those of you who may know her also know how egregious this offense can be (on my part).
You see, I grew up in a family whose father wasn’t given to small talk.
I could get his attention, so it seemed, only by butchering the English or Spanish language. No matter how preoccupied Dad might have been, the slightest slip resulted in a repeat-after-me type lecture.
Once, I used the Spanish word for office, “ofecina.” The error hadn’t been out of my lips for a nano-second before Dad, who I used to think invented the Spanish language, said “It’s oficina,” and he stressed the first “i,” giving it I-strain, so I’d get the message.
Being corrected daily can cause one or two of several results. My first reaction could have been never to be like Dad, never to seem the pedant whose only contact with or interest in others was in refining the dialects of the tribes. Another option was to become just like him.
So my lot in life was to become an English-journalism-speech teacher.
Wow. What better opportunity is there to correct people?
As a child, I used to enjoy setting up people by uttering something that seemed profane and irreverent on first hearing. Accordingly, having done my homework, I came across an expression guaranteed to draw a reaction. My plan was to utter the outrageous expression and then emerge the hero and calm everybody down with a pompous display of knowledge.
So at dinner I said, “All hell broke loose at school this morning.” The words had just barely escaped when I was assaulted with various gasps.
Dad, in a grave voice, asked how I dared utter such language. Cockily, I said I’d read that phrase in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which we’d been studying at school.
I added that the expression means “pandemonium.” Well, Milton or not, I was wrong on two counts: using the h-word and upsetting the family in such a way, irrespective of any 17th century poet. I got dismissed from the table early that night, but it wasn’t too bad. Mom had prepared liver, anyway.
Before you begin wondering what kind of marital rift exists between Bonnie and me, let me explain that it boils down to just a few words, the main issue being the difference between “laying” and “lying.” Forty years of barely intrusive, considerate, polite “modification” of her grammar hasn’t worked. “Laying” has completely subsumed “lying.”
As a result, Bonnie’s purse will be “laying on the bed,” not “lying.”
She will have “laid down to sleep,” not lain. Perhaps it’s time to lie down my arms and surrender. Nothing’s going to change.
Periodically I get introduced to terms I never imagined were part of my inlaws’ arsenal. If it weren’t for context, I’d never be able to divine the meaning of words like “dauntzy,” “caterwaul,” “cattywampus,”
“discombobulated” and “addlepated.” These are words the entire Coppock clan uses with regularity. And the expression “all stove up,” which appeared in a previous column, still bears no lexicological function, in spite of attempts by readers like Richard Reed and Klare Schmidt, who try to walk me through these words.
The reality is that there are as many dialects as there are speakers.
We’ll need to get used to it as we plan to vacation this fall in New England. Our previous trip there was in the mid-’60s, when we joined one of Bonnie’s cousins and her husband for a trip to Cape Cod and other places in the northeast.
As we arrived at each new town, we really had to concentrate. As we traveled further east, the dialects shifted from the Allen Funt accent of “Candid Camera” to the sounds of Sam Drucker of “Green Acres.”
Eventually we arrived in Connecticut, where people don’t pronounce any “r” that appears in the middle of any word. Motel rooms in those days averaged $10 a night, double what we used to pay in the west. Each time we stopped, we’d ask for adjoining rooms in order that we four could visit late into the night.
One clerk in Mystic, Conn., said he could let us rent a suite, with rooms that joined, but only if we agreed “not to have a potty.” Well, now, in 1967, plumbing existed even in motels in the Wild West.
We clearly were relieved that the rooms in fact had running water, and what the clerk was merely asking us to do was to refrain from any “wild all-night potties.”