“Oh, isn’t it beautiful?”
I looked at the woman who had spoken; the woman with the big smile and the big unruly ponytail and the big eyes just now brimming with tears, and then back at the landscape that so moved her: a strangely warm late-March sun shone down on endless flat fields of mud and stubble and a few lonely trees that huddled in the distance. And I said, “Yeeeess, beautiful.”
This trip north for a funeral was my first chance to see where Shelley’s people came from, to visit graves with names like Knud and Magnus and Inga and Verna engraved on them. This side of the sophisticated city girl whom I had met in Italian class was new to my eyes… but not to my ears, because I had already heard the voices of Magnus and company, along with all the other layers of her life, in the palimpsest that is her personal language.
I never met Shelley’s grandfather Magnus, who was a country lawyer and sheep-rancher on the Great Plains, but the following story is typical: once he drove to town to visit family, but got hopelessly lost (as he always did , since he scorned to follow directions, and had to be fetched by a son-in-law. He greeted his rescuer not with thanks but with, “Jeeesus Christ, you’ve gotten so god-damned fat, I can hardly recognize you!” So it is fascinating to glimpse a Magnus homunculus dwelling inside his tender-hearted granddaughter when she exclaims, “What a fright!” with a certain tone of alarmed contempt, or says the streets are as slick as deer guts on a pump-handle.
Of course, these things are not inherited in the strict sense; they are not in the genes, as is, presumably, the family’s characteristic walk. It’s a loose-limbed lap-the-miles gait that is especially appealing in women — even our diminutive niece walks with a hint of a Marlboro Man swagger. Rather, they are memes, bits of culture that have become self-propagating. Indeed, in the years since I first came to know her, some have made the jump to my brain. At a holiday gathering, I found myself saying, “What a fright!” Someone else exclaimed, “Hey, that’s what great-grandpa used to say!”
Of course, Magnus is not the only figure linking Shelley to this fertile, austere landscape. I don’t know if he said “It’s raining pitchforks and hammer-handles,” though I’m sure somebody said it back home. Her maternal grandmother, who never lost her Norwegian accent, lives on in spaghetti, pronounced SPAggety to rhyme with maggoty. And old-time rural Minnesota is just one tile in the mosaic of Shelley’s verbal persona, a mosaic that gets much of its charm from surprise and incongruity.
Our language, from the grammar of our mother tongue to the dialects, slang and jargon we know, forms a record of where we’ve been and who we’ve met that might in some ways be likened to the way our DNA encodes the history of our evolution and maps out our bodies. But there is a big difference; each of us has a personal way of speaking, an idiolect, that is shaped by conscious choice as well as circumstance. Our idiolect includes not only the body but also the tattoos and piercings, fishnets or leggings, beret or ear-flapper, J. Crew or K-Mart. When it comes to language, Shelley is one of those people who never leave the house without making a fashion statement.
Here are some other bits of brightly-colored glass from the Shelley lexicon (or Shellex for short).
“Jeepers!” evokes the young Shelley, in vintage flapper dress and shoes, discoing away the nights of 1979 in the clubs of downtown Minneapolis.
Two childhood years in Germany have left behind a freakish command of beer-drinking songs (freakish because Shelley was in kindergarten at the time) and a handful of German words for everyday objects, which she pronounces and inserts into conversation as though they were perfectly normal English (“I’ve lost my brilly [Brille=glasses],” “Have you put the spargel [asparagus] on?”). I am unsure what combination of factors created the bizarre “Now we’re cooking mit Gas!”
One can see meme-transmission at work in phrases that have made several person-to-person jumps, for example malapropisms taken ultimately from a friend’s relative or a sister-in-law’s sister-in-law (“Look, there’s a rapture [raptor]!” or “The garage is full of detrious [detritus].”). And naturally, pop culture is a canonical source of memes; my favorite development in this sphere is Shelley’s recent enthusiasm for current hip-hop and dance music. Nobody expects the smiling lady with salt-and-pepper hair who says “Jeepers!” to come out with “That shit cray!” or “Dame mas!” or “I was poppin bottles with some models and watchin em drank.” You may, if you like, think of Mrs. Cleaver serving as Jive interpreter for the hapless flight attendant in the movie Airplane.
And then, finally, some items are pure invention. People might put stuff in the trunk, people who like Britishisms might even put it in the boot, but does anyone else in the world “booterize” it? I think not. And I don’t know anyone with so many terms for the item whose name you don’t know or can’t remember—what I call a thingy is to her a dickadoo or a whositiflicket, a deelybobber or a fernstalk.
I imagine that most people have some diversity of experience and some innate creativitiy that they could use to enliven their speech, and it is a shame that so many treat language as a tasteless, colorless fluid in which utilitarian meaning is suspended like a dead specimen. After all, verbal play is one of life’s rare cost-free, guilt-free pleasures: you never have to get out your credit card or worry that someone toiled in a Bangladeshi sweatshop to produce your cool new phrase.
It is a way to honor the people we love. Shelley’s parents will not live forever, but when her father is gone, those who knew him will hear his echo whenever she answers a persistent questioner with “Because that’s the way God wants it!” (an expression not of piety but of atheist-engineer impatience). When I see this power at work, this power to channel and evoke the absent, The words that come to me are evidence of a problematic layer in my own linguistic palimpsest, the top-forty radio of my childhood. The lines running through my mind are not Shakespeare, not even Vampire Weekend…no, they are the sentimental words of that towering weenie of ‘70s pop, Dan Fogelberg:
His blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul.
Roy White lives in St. Paul with his lovely wife and handsome dog. He blogs at lippenheimer.wordpress.com and his essays and poems (well, poem) have appeared in Eclectica and Wordgathering.