Friday, April 03, 2009

All That Shit

If Blake could do this when he rose up from  shite

What might he do if he sat down to write ?        William Blake, “When Klopstock England Defied”




For those few of you who made it past the title and the invocation, let me set the scene for you. Rayda and I are sitting at a table at Chili’s waiting for our order last night, an hour before we were due at church. Chili’s was my fault. I don’t know why I suggested it. Everything on the menu is simply a large version of some bar snack. Lots of dips and fried things. The whole menu is an inexhaustible happy hour. At any rate, I said to Rayda, “You know that biography of Yogi Berra I am reading ?”  That question calls for a little digression.


I like to think that am a pretty literate fellow. I have read more than twenty books this calendar year. Most of them biographies or histories, but also among them some  religion books and a couple of novels. I had a 40% off coupon at Borders the other day and could not find anything I wanted at even 60% of the list price, but I did happen across a new biography of Yogi Berra. At least once a year I read a good baseball book. It is a guilty secret. I no longer buy them because my wife, the para-librarian, can get them for me at her place of work and they won’t linger around the house for someone to see and frown on my reading material. I asked Rayda to get this book for me  and it turned out that despite the fact that it had been available a month or so at our local libraries, no one else had  wanted it. I had read about 100 pages by dinner last night. For those of you who don’t know, Yogi Berra was once  a catcher for the New York Yankees. Yogi is now best known for his appearance in an AFLAC commercial (”they pay you in cash, which is just as good as money.” Duck squawks inquisitively).


“Yes” she said ( ending my digression  and returning us to the more immediate past),”What about it ?”


“Well. It’s a funny thing, this guy quotes extensively from a biography I read of Yogi Berra in the fall of 1962, I checked it out from the Houston downtown library. I remembered the book because I was only nine years old and it was the first time I ever saw the expression “horseshit” in print.”


Rayda stared at me, “what do you mean horseshit ? you mean bullshit ? “


“No, I replied, they are two different terms all together.” I said


“But why do they need two terms for the same thing ?” she asked.


“Because”, I replied, “they are not the same thing, they have two different meanings.” Rayda looked dubious.


The word shit has tremendous elasticity. Whether used in the form of a noun, adjective, verb or mere exclamation, it always rises to the occasion. Among the profane, it is one of the most used words in the entire English language, and has been since at least “The Canterbury Tales”. I need to confess here that I am one of the most profane people you know. The word “shit” trips off of my tongue as effortlessly as “hello”, “good bye” and “objection your honor”. That tells you more about me than I wish you knew. People should not use profanity. Not because the words themselves are bad, but because, as Bill Veeck once pointed out, it shows an ignorance of the English language if you have to keep falling back on certain words to express yourself. Shit and fuck lead that list. Using them labels you as unimaginative in your discourse. You show yourself to be a boor (in my case it’s actually more like a mere confirmation of that fact, at least to those who have been paying attention).


While it may upset you to know this, the discussion my wife and I were having continued, you will recall when we left the table a couple of paragraphs or so ago ,she was looking “dubious”. “No, really,” I said, the expressions are used for different events.” At this point I began to lecture.


“You do know the term bullshit. That term  is used as a semi-query or utterance of total disbelief when you are confronted with an improbable fact.   ‘ I made a million dollars last year’ he said.  ‘Bullshit’ said I, or, at the very least ‘BS’ which is the nonprofane abbreviation of same.”


“Isn’t that the same as horseshit ?” she again insisted.


“Oh no, there  a subtle but discernable difference” says I. “Horseshit is not used as a phrase questioning the speaker or in any way engaging in disbelief, horseshit is an  exclamation of extreme  irritation, usually screamed and often proceeded by the contraction ‘that’s’, Someone (often a mechanic) tells you that you should pay the car repair bill of $967 for your 50,000 mile checkup and you reply, ‘That’s horseshit’ and indeed, it usually is. It actually can be used for the sale of any item you believe to be too costly, even when you know that you are being charged the correct value. It is used a lot around April 15 when you come to realize that you are going to be subjected to the so called ‘Alternative Minimum Tax’ by the IRS and realize, that, despite its comforting name, you are not paying a minimum of taxes, but are actually paying more than you had anticipated.’Horseshit’ you scream, and rightfully so. “


“The problem is” I waxed on, “that people are gradually losing their understandings of the differences in profanity. There is not one person in ten under the age of 50 who could explain these differences to you. Soon the variety of profanity will be as dead as Latin and nowhere nearly as useful.” The prospect saddened me. I know what lead to this state, the loosening up of language used on commercial television. In my youth you could not even say “damn” or “hell”, much less “bastard” or “son of a bitch” on T.V.. These were spanking words around most households. Today, all manner of profanity is spread across the airwaves and the premium cable networks indulge in the use of “shit” and “fuck” to nearly the same extent I do. Kids hear this language and are unable to appreciate the proper way to use the words. The television writers, as they get younger and younger, use them incorrectly in dialogue. It is not quite a national disgrace, but it is a shame. Anytime our language shrinks, we should feel some remorse, although as my partner Allensworth points out, it is good that we don’t hear the word “starveling” much anymore.


The dinner drew to a close and I paid the bill with the silent satisfaction, bordering on smugness, that Dr.Samuel Johnson must have felt following his conversations with his Garrick and Boswell back in the 1780s.There is an awful lot I know, an awful lot I can share with the world, would only that any of it was important. Oh by the way, the bill ? “Horseshit !”


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