My mother is a very classy lady. She isn’t classy in the lift-your-pinky-a-bit-higher-while-sipping-your-tea-dear kind of way. She makes no pretensions at elegance and is most definitely not hoity-toity. When she opens her home to friends and strangers, she makes you feel welcomed and at ease while making you want to be on your best behavior in her presence. As I grew up, she set standards of behavior that were not overly strict but the rules regarding permissible language were stringently enforced. Words such as “b-u-t-t” and “pee” were not allowed, and though I never remember a mouth full of soap or a harsh rebuke, it was enough to get “the look” and perhaps a whispered “Amy!” One day, our pastor greatly offended my mother, not by wondering from theological orthodoxy, but rather by using a word she found inappropriate in the pulpit. I can still envision her fuming in her rather adorable way and remarking that “If you are going to use the word crap in a sermon, you might as well say—” here she paused and probably blushed—“s@*%”
As the mother of three boys and the wife of a man who is one of four boys, I often struggle to maintain the sort of standards for appropriate verbiage with which I was raised. If I weren’t so busy snapping and shushing, I might marvel at the myriad words and phrases boys can come up with just to describe bodily functions. I can’t bring myself to list them here but I am sure if you have spent any amount of time with young men of a certain, or perhaps not-so-certain, age, you can imagine. As time passes, I have begun to wonder if it is really worth the effort. Do the words they use really matter all that much? After all, if “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” then does a “dump” really smell any worse than a “poopy”? Well, for now at least, I have decided to hold my ground and say yes. Though it might be no less offense to my sense of smell, it greatly offends my ears to hear my two year old inform his father that he has just “dropped a big log.”
But why? I think I found a bit of the answer in picking up one my beloved Jane Austen novels the other night. In an attempt to prove a point to Jim regarding the tenacity of women’s feelings, I began to quote a passage from Persuasion that nearly always fills my eyes with tears and my heart with bittersweet pride at the ability of my fellow-woman to craft such words. The language a few centuries back was cumbersome, but it was weighty and well-chosen. This is one of the reasons I prefer email over the telephone. It gives me a chance to ponder and meticulously make my point, rather than quickly ingest what has been said and respond, usually while hiding from the riotous commotion of the kids in the background. In one sense, writing is much more impersonal, but in another sense the distance helps rather than hinders your ability to communicate. Though you miss out on all the nonverbal dimensions, you can process more carefully what is being said and what you want to say.
We are finite creatures. Our abilities to make ourselves known and to be known are so few. Shouldn’t we handle with care the limited means we do possess? Just as my mom takes special care in preparing for guests, straightening the house, choosing the menu, I think we should take special care in choosing our words. The other great lady in my life, my mother-in-law, has often told me to be wary of people who don’t care what others think of them. To me, people who aren’t careful with their words are displaying a certain recklessness. I recognize this officially places me in the swimming-against-the-current category in our increasingly casual WGAS society (No, Mom, that doesn’t stand for the West Gloucestershire Art Society. I will explain later.) Here I stand and I can do no other. But then again, I could just be full of c-r-a-p.