There’s a hypothesis called Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that says learning language actually shapes our reality because WORDS for new things allow us to THINK of things we never thought of before! I’ve learned 5-6 different languages (if you count English) and I believe this is true! More importantly, I think that the more you LEARN words, the more you can LAUGH at the otherwise dull, sometimes dreary things most folks call REALITY. And…you may actually be able to create your own, alternative reality …where ordinary events are knee-slapping funny, for reasons only you can fully appreciate.
Welcome To My World, Sugar!
My favorite word of all times is from Spanish. One day I will whisper this word throatily into the warm ear of a lover and seduce him on the spot! My word is: ferrocariles. In Spanish you roll the double Rs in a sexy way that sounds like this: fe.ro.ca.ril (Click the word…listen to the pronunciation by Adelaida, that’s it!) Oooh! What does it mean? Railroads!…somehow, I find the irony even sexier than the sound of the word itself! Greasy, sweaty, smelling of iron…
In Seattle there were more words for RAIN than I had ever encountered. The Inuit have many words for SNOW. The French have countless words for LOVE. In Swahili, the word for HAND was called mkono. When I asked the word for shoulder a villager pointed to his shoulder and said, “Mkono”. What about this, said I, pointing to my elbow? Also mkono. So Swahili is NOT the language you use to teach human anatomy, or possibly even play “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with kindergartners. It’s a trade language, so it depends on standing right in front of people and using a lot of gestures and facial expressions to communicate.
But once when we were walking outside, one of my students pointed to a big red stinging ant and asked, “What do you call this insect?” “Ant” I told him. Then he pointed to a poisonous black and white fuzzy insect and asked its name. Again I said, “It’s an ant.” His friend asked about the deadly safari “ant”, then the tiny sugar “ants”. Finally, in an amusingly animated voice the student declared, “Do you mean to tell me that all these different insects are called by the same name?!” We laughed till we cried.
The other day I introduced a new word to a Buddhist friend: schadenfreude. Its a German word meaning: the happiness derived from another person’s misfortune. My friend attempted to soften the meaning to something very PC, like slapstick humor or a genuine misunderstanding. But, NO! Its a German word! It means the nasty thing it seems to mean! You remember Germany? From WWII? And WWI before that? The country with the highest ratio of bed-wetting men, most of whom don’t STOP wetting the bed until they join the military. Why? Because the potty training of toddlers is THAT HARSH! Hello? That’s right! You DO get it…its just an ugly word for an ugly impulse.
My point, I suppose, is that words are FUN! Even when they reflect some nasty reality of our culture, or the culture of others. Somehow, when we capture big horrific ideas into tiny little sounds, roll them around luxuriously in our mouths, then release them for all to hear….we gain mastery over their sharp painful edges…we control THEM. We touch them. We lick them! We chew on them! We make them FUN!!
Here are some new words for 21 century America:
- Footwear – After 9/11, then came the “shoe bomber”, then the good people of TSA coined the word “footwear” as used in the sentence, “Please remove your footwear, and place it in the bin.” It seems, once they decided to X-ray everyone’s shoes some smart Alec’s decided to snark back, “But these aren’t shoes, they’re boots!” Then came “sandals”. Then, to keep people and their sassy ways under control, TSA officials began asking people one after one to remove their “footwear” and left it at that.
- Personal Items – Long ago when air travel was something special and nice, we all carried baggage. We gave our baggage to baggage handlers and they returned them to us by way of the baggage carousel. Or we placed a carry-on bag in the overhead baggage bin. A comical, if unpleasant start to a vacation was when someone lost his bag in flight. But now we don’t carry bags. Because they charge us extravagantly for each bag. And, God forbid, we leave one unattended and end up thrown in the pokey awaiting trial for terrorism. No, what we do now is we stuff things in our pockets and our purses. We put them in the pouch of our hoodies. We cram things into plastic shopping totes. We hang things around our necks and we loop things over our ears. We scurry furtively on board like the sleek and cowering beasties we are with a collection of stuff that are now called, “Personal Items” And we make sure we look around as we exit because “The airlines cannot be responsible for lost personal items.” No longer any mention of ‘baggage’.
- Godspeed – It used to be that when a friend went off on a vacation you told them, “Bon Voyage” in the French tradition. But there are times when one must travel for more somber purposes, such as a trip home for a funeral. At such times it seems in bad taste to wish a “Bon Voyage” which literally means “Good Trip”. Those are the times when you squeeze a hand tenderly, or chuck a shoulder warmly while holding back tears and wish the traveler, “Godspeed”.
So the next time you enjoy commercial flight you may notice one fellow traveler laughing hysterically at nothing. That will be me, doubled over, tears running down my cheeks. Really enjoying my trip! If you would be so kind, please post my bail and explain that I’m not dangerous. I just enjoy insanity encapsulated into fun words with rich histories.
“Good morning, folks, please step to the left, remove your footwear and personal items and place them in the bin for an X-ray. Step forward when called and present your ID and boarding pass. Then bend over and grab your ankles for the metal detector wand and Godspeed!….Godspeed, my friends!”
*After reading to a couple friends I realize my humor is a little obtuse. The thing is, I encountered the TSA-style treatment at least ten years before 9/11 when traveling in the Middle East. But now, more than ten years after the event, when almost every week a new country or city is bombed, we Americans are still whining about the inconvenience of having to remove our shoes. And we still think, “But I paid extra for the special calfskin boots with matching handbag, don’t I deserve special treatment?” No! TSA is saving your life! Your calfskin boots will seed the clouds just the same as everyone else’s. Take them off! And there still seems to be a preference for targeting brown people rather than all working together. We are the new Cesar, fiddling while Rome burns down around our ears.