Saturday, December 31, 2011


I love the way language changes—the new meanings for old words, the old words that make a comeback. You can see it everywhere, once you decide to notice. Look in the news, where our modern search capacities track such phenomena. Journalist Tom Spears, for example, has noticed that the Ottawa Citizen printed ‘iconic’ 370 times in 2011, not even once in 1990. By 2032 it might appear thousands of times, or maybe none at all. Nobody knows which word would achieve iconic status, taking its place and soaking up the printer’s ink in the event of its demise. If I had the tools I’d find out how often ‘hope’ appears in the news, whether its use has grown or shrunk. Perhaps some day I will have the tools, maybe even be lucky enough to know how to use them. But that isn’t likely to happen tomorrow. The question is, what shall I do while I wait?
A few stories come to mind, might as well take a moment to tell them. This Christmas season, with the family gathered for kitchen chatter, seemed like the perfect time to drop a phrase that once echoed in our house. “Beats for you,” I said. Everyone understood.
I don’t know what ‘beats for you’ means in other households. In ours, it means, ‘Turn the clock back 20 years and imagine us smiling at one another, giving a playful push.’ “Beats for you,” the pusher would say with a grin. A mutually understood implication bubbled unspoken just below the surface. The intended meaning could, I confess, have been delivered with more directness. But what self-respecting just-about-teen-ager would say to his brother, “You have been fortunate to avoid the full force of my wrath on this particular occasion?” If you wanted to make a veiled threat with a smile, you’d warn of potential ‘harsh beats.’
I have no idea where the language of beats came from. Maybe it started at school, maybe on television. I know I didn’t start it, but I will confess that I encouraged it. I used it, though probably not at the office. It is difficult to imagine what direction my career might have taken had I—assigned the job of disciplining an employee—opened with a grinning exclamation, “Beats for you.”
Childhood is a veritable breeding ground for the introduction of expressions. This, possibly, is because youth so often exclaim. Most of our out-of-fashion exclamations began with kids and youth—cool, neat, rad, mint! Mint! What’s that you say? You’ve never heard anybody say ‘mint’?
Well, if you’ve never heard young people exclaiming ‘mint!’ every 14 seconds, then it is clear to me that you never attended Jericho Hill School in the mid 1960’s. The school was out in Vancouver, many miles from my Alberta farm home. I was 11 when I arrived. “I’m from Alberta,’ I told my new roommate.
“Mint!” she said. Being the new kid in the dorm, I let it go, didn’t mention it the first time, or the fiftieth time I heard it. I knew her a little better by the next day, so I said, “What does ‘mint’ mean?”
“What does ‘mint’ mean?” she repeated, drawing a wondrous breath. “What does ‘mint’ mean? You don’t know what ‘mint’ means? They don’t say ‘mint’ in Alberta?”
“Well,” said I cautiously, not wanting to cast too dull a light on my ancestors, “I suppose it’s possible that they say it, and I simply haven’t heard it.”
“Mint,” said she, rising to the occasion with the gravity of a philosophy professor accepting an honorary doctorate, ‘mint means nice.”
“Mint!” I replied. Twelve hours later I had almost forgotten that there was once a time when I didn’t say it, except in reference to certain candies my Granny kept in her purse.
Some days I get down about language, start thinking that no new language is ever good, that all new words of exclamation start with F. Sometimes I long for the days of ‘mint!’ Most often it’s the talk shows that bring it on. It’s listening to the endless programs where callers are encouraged to call in complaining about how the language has gone to the dogs, how the apostrophe is wrongly used, how young people can’t even write a business letter.

Then I go out shopping, and a cashier just past her 16th birthday asks me, “Will that be cash, or card?”
Out pops my credit card. She picks it up, peers at it, runs an affectionate finger over the security chip. “Perrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrfect!” she cries. And here is the message, the sign, the affirmation that the days of ‘mint!’ are still with us, albeit in a different form. I know that all is right with the world.
In 2011 Everything Became Iconic

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