Friday, December 30, 2011

The Years of Speaking Dangerously

With Dad on the Northwestern
campus in 1975
My father was a native of Memphis -- he grew up in Bartlett, which is now effectively part of the city but was in the 1930's and 1940's an outlying community, a place where country people mixed with city folks.  My dad spent most of his years working in grocery stores, and in that business, he encountered a vast array of people from all different walks of life and parts of the world.  There were Italian truck farmers, Jewish food brokers, Greek restaurant owners, you name it.  He kept his ears open to their accents and expressions, but he didn't stop there -- he turned everyday words upside down and inside out, then used them in normal conversations.  The results were often hilarious, because he didn't hold back.  He would use these expressions when in the company of complete strangers, and this delighted many people, my friends among them.  It goes without saying that he was one of the most popular parents to ever chaperone the Treadwell High School band bus.

For example, I did not know the correct pronunciation of the word "catastrophe" until I was about eight years old, because my dad always pronounced it "CAT-a-stro-phe", with the accent on the first syllable, which to me sounded like something untoward happening to a feline.  It was only when I was corrected by a fellow third grader that I realized the error of my ways and started using the correct, albeit less dramatic, and therefore less effective, pronunciation.

One night, my mom and dad attended an open house at my school, and when my dad got home, he mentioned that the walls of the school were painted "bilious green".  He said this with his characteristic Tennessee/Louisiana accent (although I am not aware of any Louisianans in the family), and I thought it was sublimely ridiculous, so much so that I started using it on my own to describe any less than pleasing shade of green.  At the time, I did not see the connection to "bile", but I just thought the word "bilious" sounded absolutely fabulous on its own.

In our house, my dad would call a hospital a "horse spittle", which my mom always scolded him about because she thought it sounded so rude.  I picked that one up as well, because having not yet attained a more mature level of gentlemanly civility, I thought that I could surely get some mileage out of any expression which evoked a certain element of revulsion.  Some years later, my parents spent quite a lot of time as patients at Baptist Hospital, and I pulled back on the whole "horse spittle" thing after that, having gained a new respect for what hospital employees actually did for a living.

But by far, my favorite expression Dad used was the word "cattywampusided".  Now, the term "cattywampus" is widely used in the South and Midwest to denote a condition of disarray, or more specifically, misalignment, and my father's use of the word remained true to this meaning, but his variation is something I have never since seen in printed literature or heard in spoken English.  I'm convinced that he made it up, and I said bravo, because that was one great slang word.  I still find myself using it from time to time, owing to the weird way it strikes the ear.

My dad would add fuel to the fire by taking these made up words or variations and adding to them some kind of accent, and I seem to have perpetuated that practice.  Truly, it makes for fun at times: I've been wished "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" when a Carrabba's waitress assumed I was Jewish, I've fended off telemarketers by pretending to be a recent immigrant who does not yet have a full command of English, and needless to say, I have no trouble getting offshore support for my electronic devices.  I think Dad would be proud of me for continuing his tradition of mixing it up a little in everyday speech.

So the next time you speak to me, please do not be surprised if I launch into some fake French or Mumbai street speak.  I don't mean anything by it...I'm just carryin' on an old family tradition.

Happy New Year, everyone!!