They say there is a time and a place for everything. For the most part, I’ve found this to be true, and I firmly believe that a fair portion of the wisdom you acquire as you meander through life involves learning the whys and whens and wheres of what is considered suitable within a given situation.
Take swearing, for example.
No, seriously, just think about it.
Although it might not seem obvious at first, proper swearing requires a modicum1 of dexterity2 and finesse3. Well, unless you don’t mind coming off as an ass in front of family, friends, or complete strangers.
Over the years I’ve found that successful swearing can be measured in degrees, depending upon the current audience and the specific situation.
For starters, I never swear in front of my children.
Okay, okay. There are a few caveats4 with regards to the above statement. They are as follows:
1) When reading books aloud with my children I generally read the actual swear word if it is in the book (except to my youngest, who will chastise me soundly if I forget to substitute the “Bloody Hell” remarks in Harry Potter with the more acceptable “Bloody Heck”). Sorry, W, sometimes I forget.
2) If they overhear me in a phone conversation they may catch the occasional lapse in verbal purity. Sometimes I forget that little people have big ears. Bad mom.
3) Since my two older children have passed the tender age of 18, I have relaxed my guard and allowed a few mild expletives5 to slip out. After all, they are pseudo adults now, right?
But we’re just getting started. I could list all of the rules, or maybe I should say guidelines, I’ve refined over the years, but perhaps it would be easier and more succinct to express it in a table, like so:
To get a better idea of the degrees involved here, think of “0” as language that would make your Sunday School Teacher proud, while “11” approaches levels of verbal depravity6 that would make a pirate blush. And none of this has anything to do with trying to act cool or worldly, it’s simply a matter of letting your inner chameleon match its colors to your surroundings.
Well, you say, that’s all very interesting but do you have a point here?
Yes, as a matter of fact I do.
You see, I’ve noticed that a similar set of guidelines should be applied when employing the unique and/or grandiose7 words that I love so much. That’s right. Remember those swear words that should only be pulled out for special occasions with those who can really appreciate them? Sadly, the same is true for the lavish, weighty gems of our lexicon8 that make my heart go all aflutter. Because the simple truth is that some people fear, or even resent, the use of “high fallutin’ words.”
Trust me, I’ve seen the looks. Unintentionally savor an intensely scrumptious9 adjective or inadvertently liberate10 an overly energetic verb and you might find yourself facing a listener whose eyes have suddenly glazed over with that “I have no idea what she’s talking about but I’m going to pretend that I do” look. Or, worse still, your listener’s eyebrows furrow until they almost meet in the middle and the corners of his mouth twist down towards his shoes, and you know he’s thinking, “Who does she think she’s trying to impress with all that fancy, schmancy talk.”
And the answer is, no one. I do not use “fancy” words to obfuscate11 the unwary; nor do I use them because I want to come across as an erudite12 snob. I use them because I love them. I cherish them. I would caress them if they had corporeal13 forms.
I eventually learned to be more discrete with my passion. I keep my pretties in a drawer and only bring them out on display in those special moments when their magnificence can be fully appreciated. Kind of like the ring my mother-in-law gave me, which is beautiful, but too fancy and too expensive for everyday wear, or like Gorgonzola14 cheese.
1Modicum. Ooh, I’d like just a bit of that. Oh, not that much, really. Just a smidge. Ah, just right.
2Dexterity. Think of a tennis player as he deftly returns each of his opponent’s volleys. Now try applying that sort of agility in a conversation or a battle of wits.
3Finesse. Think of ballet dancers pirouetting across the stage. Now imagine such a demonstration of grace executed in a verbal or mental fashion.
4Caveat. This is always true. Always. Except for this time, or under these circumstances, or when the moon is full and in a month starting with the letter J.
5Expletive. The punctuation marks favored by many a teenager. When I was young I had a friend who kept a particularly expansive string of profanity reserved for special occasions. It went something like this:%^##@&!+ }!$$ =@>+ =*(\ My mouth used to drop, slack with awe, when she pulled out that little jewel.
6Depravity. Oh, the horrors. Have you no shame? How can you show your face in public when you’ve allowed yourself to wallow in the grimy depths of the darkest basement of morality?
7Grandiose. This is one of those words that you’d like to visit some day and then photograph and, of course, utter the appropriate number of oohs and aahs as you gaze upon its vast splendor, but it’s not really one to call home. Rather like the Taj Mahal or Buckingham Palace.
8Lexicon. Imagine a cupboard, nay an entire warehouse, full of words. Big words, little words, fancy words, simple words, words that inspire hope, words that inflict pain, words that make love blossom. All the words you can imagine, each ripe for the picking, there to add to your verbal arsenal or to a spoken bouquet.
9Scrumptious. Cheesecake. Need I say more?
10Liberate. I found a little box filled with hoards of tiny whatsits. They were jammed so tightly within the walls of their miniature cell that they could hardly move. Moved by their plight, I opened the lid of their prison and released them into the world. “Fly, be free,” I chanted as I sent them on their way. Little buggers scurried into every crack or cranny they could find, including the little air vent on my laptop, and then they gnawed holes in my hard drive and left tiny droppings all over my keyboard. Lesson of the day: Some things are locked up for a reason.
11Obfuscate. Oh look, someone left behind a nice, pristine trail of truth. Hmmm… I’m not really thrilled with where this track leads; it’s ends uncomfortably near my front door. Perhaps I’ll sprinkle a few contradictory details along the edges and scatter some misleading statistics down the middle in order to hide the path’s actual destination.
12Erudite. Well now, according to Bromage, et al, the cranial capacity of Australopithecus afarensis is 438 cc… Ah yes, well if you’ll remember Fibonacci himself, in his book Liber Abaci, introduced Arabic numerals to Europe… Of course, Mozart composed all five of his violin concertos while employed as a court musician in Salzburg… Please keep in mind that Erudite and Pompous are not in fact married, although the two may sometimes be seen, arm in arm, enjoying an extravagant night on the town. For a perfect glimpse of what their love child might resemble, look here or here.
13Corporeal. Here’s a simple test to determine whether something is corporeal or not. Take two separate somethings, say Thing 1 and Thing 2. Now, try shoving your fist as hard as you can at each of these somethings. Say it goes through Thing 1 without encountering any resistance whatsoever; there is a distinct possibility that Thing 1 is not in a corporeal state. Or perhaps it is jello. If, however, it meets Thing 2 and stops abruptly with a jarring or excruciating sensation, then you can be assured that Thing 1 is corporeal. Now go bandage your knuckles before you bleed all over my blog.
14Gorgonzola. Rapture delivered in the form of creamy, blue-veined morsels. But be forewarned, a little goes a long ways.