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Category: Language

The Wave
I can pinpoint the moment of my awakening to a single event. It was 1982, and I was in my Toyota Longbed, backing out of my spot in a dusty roadhouse parking lot somewhere in Texas. We’d just stuffed a quick meal and were about to resume our straight-through journey back to California from New Orleans.

I’d just about completed my maneuver when I checked the rearview. Another roadhouse customer had also begun to back out, and he was headed right at me. I could see his wrinkled old red neck through the rear window of his beat-up truck. I was helpless, frozen in space, and he was going to back right into me! No! I felt the anger well up inside me, the regional prejudice, the ageism, the righteous indignation.

That’s when it happened. He stopped, just inches away, when he finally saw me. Then he raised his hand and gave me a little wave. Miraculously, all the frustration and badness drained away. In its wake came feelings of relief, yes, but also of well-being…and of brotherhood with the old codger who’d almost clobbered me.

That is when I first awoke to the power of The Wave. It’s such a simple gesture, yet so powerful. In that situation, it simply meant “My bad,” but I doubt that a signed note of apology on high-quality stationery could have had the same effect. The feeling it produced in me lasted all day. In fact, it’s lasted for over thirty years now. During that time, I have become more and more of a waver myself, and I have taken more notice of others doing it. The variety of its uses in human interaction is remarkable.

I don’t know, but my guess is that we are the only animals who communicate by waving. Birds and fish wave all the time, of course, but that’s for purposes of locomotion. The human wave carries a message, and that message is almost as variable as the social contexts in which it is used. It can be the codger’s apology. It can be hello, or good-bye, or thanks, or no thanks, or a here I am, or never mind, or I’m okay, or you’re okay, or that’s enough. If you’re the Queen in a parade, that little tick-tock motion says, “I acknowledge your adoration, and you may look at me.” If you’re a kid in a parade, it means, “Look at meeeee!” The meaning of any wave is mostly contextual, and for some reason that makes the message clearer than clear. None of those verbal translations would carry the weight or the inspire the same depth of understanding in the viewer.

The uses of the wave are so diverse, so universal, in fact, that for most purposes we might be able to abandon the spoken word. We’d still need writing, of course, for things like explanations of privacy policies and Ikea instructions, but I think the wave could well supplant everything else and leave us in a quieter, more peaceful world.

If you agree, just give me the high sign, my brother.
Yes, No
If you watch talking head TV, you hear it all the time. One talking head will serve up a steaming plate of wisdom, top it off with a suggested conclusion, then ask some other talking head if they agree. More often than not, the first two words out of the other pundit’s mouth are, “Yes, no.” Surely you’ve heard this odd new verbal tic.

The second pundit will then typically go off on a lengthy affirmation of everything the first pundit just said, then ladle on even more proof and argumentation on the same point. If you’re lucky, you’ll sometimes get to hear a third talking head pick up the thread. “Yes, no,” she begins, and on it will go.

It crops up in real life, too. The conversation might go something like this: “You know, some people think that the third Hobbit movie will be filled with stupefying excess (just like the second one), but I’m going anyway.” “Yes, no,” comes the agreeable reply. “Not only that, I’m going to buy all the collectable crap they’re selling.”

Even though the tic contains both the word yes and the word no, it is never used to express disagreement. No one would say “yes, no,” then go on to suggest that the previous speaker was a bonehead. It’s always positive. So why, then, is the word no there at all?

By the way, we’re not talking about the phrase “yes and no” here. “Yes and no” is also an annoying answer to a question — especially when the question calls for a simple yes or no answer. “Yes and no” is different from “yes, no,” however. “Yes and no” is a transparent effort to weasel out of giving a straight answer and thereby avoid the dangers of being pinned down. “Yes, no,” on the other hand, doesn’t seek to evade; instead, it wants to heartily concur. It seems to be so intent on agreeing that it offers both possible answers just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding. Yes, no, maybe, whatever you say. This misplaced politeness, or whatever it is, is troubling to me.

Or perhaps the insertion of the no is meant as a challenge to anyone who would dare to differ with the first speaker. I agree completely with my colleague, it might be saying, and I peremptorily reject whatever flimsy rationale might be offered against it. Yes, no.

Though this explanation — which sees the no as a staunch defense of a colleague — might seem a more honorable reason for the tic, I do not find it satisfying, either. The mere fact that we have to guess at the motivation for it smells of a lack of conviction on the part of the speaker. As in the case of “yes and no,” what would be wrong with just stating your opinion and letting the misunderstandings fall where they may? “Yes!” one should say, or “no!” If others are confused by your plain-spoken declaration, leave it to them to ask questions — or, if they have the cojones, to disagree. Am I right? Am I?

Or is it possible that I have lost my sense of proportion here? Is this whole question just silly? Or worse, have I veered from my preoccupation with such matters toward a dangerous obsession? Am I teetering at the very edge of madness? Am I nuts?

No, yes?
Live Free or Die
Are you tired of hearing word snobs crab about how everybody else misuses the English language? I know I am. Nothing chaps my hide more than a bunch of stuffy know-it-alls telling us how we should speak and write.

That’s what makes writing this so difficult. I tried not to, but the voices in my head would not leave me alone. If it’s any consolation, no one hates me for doing this more than I do.

That said, let’s get right to the main topic of conversation among my personal demons. Can we stop, please, using the phrase “to die for”? I’ll admit that there is a legitimate need to express our enjoyment (particularly of food), but this expression just doesn’t make sense. If you are willing to die for that extravagant helping of dessert, when are you supposed to do it? Before you eat? Wouldn’t that reduce your enjoyment somewhat? On the other hand, if you agree to die afterward, then you are faced with the ugly prospect of a death made worse by 1) the realization that the whole purpose of food is to sustain life, not end it, 2) remorse because the Chocolate Midnight Madness you just ate doesn’t seem as irresistible as it once did, and 3) guilt over crashing your diet. Plus, you’d be an uncomfortably full corpse.

Now, if you thought the Midnight Madness was good enough to kill for, then I could understand. As a method of food acquisition, that practice has a long history of success. I am not advocating it, mind you, but at least it would make sense.

Okay, that felt great. The demons are quiet now, but as long as I’m rolling, let me add another candidate for permanent ban: “it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.” I don’t think the demons even care about this one; I am proposing its termination because I prefer to slice my own bread, if you don’t mind. Sometimes I like it thick, and at other times, thin. It’s all about freedom. Am I supposed to feel good about some machine dictating the dimensions of my toast? That kind of usurpation of choice is anathema to me, and if you’ve ever had anathema, you know what I mean.

Fortunately, I have found a suitable replacement for this moldy idiom. Why not “the greatest thing since sliced baloney”? It conveys the same ironic understatement but does nothing to undermine our fundamental Constitutional guarantees of control over our food. Insisting on one’s freedom to slice one’s own baloney, I maintain, would be stretching those freedoms too far. Like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.

You see? I’m not a crabby know-it-all. I’m really only trying to help. I see the demons nodding in agreement. We all hope we have made your life a little better, and we thank you for reading this blog. Around here, we think it’s the best thing since sliced baloney.
A Toast to Harshmellows
When was the last time you heard someone seriously say, “Hey, man…you’re harshing my mellow.” It makes me smile to think of some tie-dyed dude drawling his complaint over having his serenity spoiled.

I calculate that the hippie in this reverie is now in his late 60s or 70s, and I’ll bet he’s long since stopped protesting his lost mellowness with that nice phrase. It is now an antiquated expression, after all, like “What’s buzzin’, cousin?” or “Ducky shincracker.” You don’t hear it anymore, and that’s sad because it leaves a hole in our slang vocabulary that cannot easily be filled.

You might suggest that “You’re bumming me out” or “You’re bringing me down” would suit, but those terms don’t have the poetic power of a mellow turned acrid. They communicate the same thought, but they are pedestrian phrases, and we should be looking for something with the same flair as the original.

“Don’t rain on my parade” might be offered as a substitute, or “Don’t burst my bubble,” but neither of these conveys the same sense of an organically-attained high laid waste. A parade, for example, is a product of planning and precise timing; its fun is fully orchestrated. A bubble may be a pretty thing, but its enjoyment is by nature fleeting and insubstantial. A good mellow, conversely, is a slow, natural groove — a feeling that might well persist indefinitely if not interrupted by some negative force.

“Pissing on my bonfire” is not quite right either. It implies malice on the part of the pissor, while the harshing of a mellow could simply be the product of clueless inadvertence. The same goes for “Breaking my crayons” or “Pooping on my cake.” The expression we are looking for is not about being mean; it’s about making someone feel crummy through simple thoughtlessness.

In short, there is no good alternative for harshing my mellow, though a few possibilities come to mind: Don’t choke my flow, diss my bliss, dim my bulb, eclipse my moon, soil my linen, despoil my wilderness, ignite my Hindenburg, interdict my shipment, or pack my parachute backwards.

You can see I’m having trouble with this, but let me try a few more: stunt my growth, empty my calories, fog my solar panels, lower my dividends, or overheat my antioxidants. Okay, that’s all I’ve got, but I welcome your suggestions for a replacement of this lost, lamented idiom. Please share your thoughts with this blog about any potential new version of “Harsh my mellow.”

No, this is not a contest. No, there will be no prizes awarded. No, your nominations will not be published. So stop with the questions, please. You’re precipitating a synesthesia in my aura, man.

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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee