By Wayne Allensworth
I’ve always known there were dogs that wouldn’t hunt, and that you should let sleeping dogs lie. I’ve walked in high cotton, bit off more than I could chew, kept tabs on something or someone, had to be careful what I’ve wished for more than once, and have been disturbed to find the fly in the buttermilk (or ointment). Your humble servant is always fixing to do something—whether I get to it is an open question. Some folks still understand what I have in mind by those expressions, but there are fewer and fewer of them. All this came to mind recently when a friend of mine noted that so and so had more money than Carter’s got liver pills—meaning a lot, though I think his reference would be lost on anyone younger than, say, 60.
Idioms and colloquial speech change over time. But in the past the process was more organic, and moved a bit more slowly, or it seemed so to this aging wordsmith. The course of linguistic evolution was rooted in everyday experience, grounded in a particular place, and bound by culture. It might take a while before new figures of speech became distant enough from the old ones that they required explanation. But if a figure of speech has to be explained, it loses its vitality, the vitality required to convey a meaning that cannot easily be expressed in conventional language. I could readily understand the manner of speaking of my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents when I was a boy. The so-called “generation gap” wasn’t all that big of a gap after all.
To the kid me, any carbonated beverage was a “coke,” whether it was a Big Red or an Orange Crush. My father readily grasped the nuances in the general term, though he tended to favor “soda water” as a categorical designation. I’ve noted, and lamented, that the small “c” coke has been replaced even in the Southwest by what sounded like a Yankeeism to me—the truncated term “soda.” Then again, some Yankees favored the term “soda pop,” or just “pop,” but even that appears to have been lost. But hardly anyone in my part of the world speaks of “Yankees” any more, a description that was still common a few decades ago in a South that had not forgotten its past. These days, however, it appears that one can be born and raised, as we used to say, in Texas or Tennessee, but not be a Texan or Tennessean in any substantive way that indicates attachment or belonging. People from nowhere drift in a sea of detached abstraction and are the poorer for it.
Technology and capitalism’s tendency to separate us into market segments, something that has only accelerated social fragmentation, has created digital echo chambers for us, echo chambers with their own speech forms and insider language. It took me a while, for example, to figure out what color pill I was supposed to have swallowed to experience enlightenment, or that getting “pilled” had something to do with a flash of insight. I figured out that I wasn’t “woke,” but wasn’t sure about whether I was “based.” Text culture (“LOL” or some unintelligible jumble of capitalized letters), meme sight gags, and the informal drift of e-mails have their own manner of communicating, one that is usually stripped of any cultural context. That lack of context moves us further and further away from being grounded in face-to-face personal relationships, enmeshed in an organic web of family, community, and shared experience. The loss of a common idiom is symptomatic of that feeble social condition.
Language includes its own metaphysic. Digitized techno language is the jargon of materialism and mechanistic thinking. The flat, desiccated, pointed language of post-modern discourse lacks the vigor to support a culture of any depth. Radio kicked off the process of weakening regional dialects and accents that had helped embed us in a particular place, nurturing our individual identities within a collective. By the time TV had become ubiquitous, so had the flat “American accent” of news anchors and TV hosts. The American manner of speaking was becoming deracinated.
The entity once called “Madison Avenue” turned out advertising jingles, producing a language of its own, which, at least for a time, drew on old motifs, motifs which were used — and misused — by Hollywood. Those of you of a certain age can surely remember singing “Old Susanna” to the rhythm of a “Follow the Bouncing Ball” cartoon.
But the mass communications media that had spawned Mad Men-era American idiom also worked to erode, then replace it with a mechanical, soulless newspeak as regional cultures were displaced by mass culture in an increasingly urbanized, fragmented, and bureaucratized society. Computer technology helped finish the job.
The new manner of speaking was also partly the result of postmodernism’s deconstruction of, well, everything, starting, not coincidently, with language. What’s left is the politicized language of “empowerment” and combatting “social constructs,” of listless slogans (“Love wins!”), and the formlessness of “trans-genderism,” an oxymoronic (“gay marriage”) jargon that dissolves everything it touches.
Yet it wasn’t all that long ago that certain familiar turns of phrase persisted, influencing our lives via the transcendent metaphysic embedded in it. Some phrases everyone knew, whether they were from the South, the West, the East, or the North. Whether they were working people, farmers, middle class, or wealthy. Words of wisdom, references that rang a collective bell, lent Americans of different subcultures a common pool of poetry and metaphor, as well as reinforcement of a common ethical foundation. That linguistic base was held together by the cultural glue of religion. Words frequently came directly from the Bible, especially the King James Bible.
We all knew that forbidden fruit was to be avoided … that an honest living was made by the sweat of your brow … that you were, in fact, your brother’s keeper … that something we judged outdated or otherwise of ancient lineage was older than Methuselah … that one day, you might prosper in a land of milk and honey … that pursuing an empty ideal was embodied in the worship of the Golden Calf … that an innocent unfairly blamed was a scapegoat … that the beloved was the apple of one’s eye. We admired a man of shared values, who was after one’s own heart and noted how the mighty had fallen … that a good life required putting one’s own house in order … that one might barely get by on the skin of one’s teeth … that one day, our lives would be weighed in the balance.
We knew that pride cometh before a fall … that for everything, there is season, so eat, drink, and be merry … for you are made of ashes and dust and will return to them … that the nations themselves are but a drop in the bucket to the Lord, who dispersed them to the four corners of the earth … that there is no rest for the wicked, and that the lamb will be led to the slaughter … That the best of us have feet of clay, and that the leopard cannot change its spots … that the writing was on the wall and soon, sooner than we think, we will face a baptism of fire.
We knew that wolves often dress in sheep’s clothing … that following the straight and narrow way means a chance for a good life.
We knew that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and said that it was good. We trusted that faith could move mountains, and knew that we must all bear our own cross. That the lure of the serpent is the kiss of death. And we are now learning that the blind leading the blind is a sign of our desperate times.
We have, my friends, reached that fateful eleventh hour. Only the truth can set us free.
I fear that so much of our common cultural heritage, beginning with the language that informed our lives and inspired us to do better, is far gone. As the “woke” commissars censor our speech, attach trigger warnings to old movies, and butcher the literary canon, we do have a small opening to try and counter the evil day by transmitting the language of The Book to our children and grandchildren. I would avoid the more denatured modernized versions as much as possible. The grandeur of the old language carries with it a quality of its own that connects us to our past, to all that made us what we were, and to a transcendent glory that is the beginning of wisdom. It is a cathedral of expression.
No people can flourish or even survive as a fragmented collection of detached spirits, like lost, disembodied souls wandering in the underworld, howling their unintelligible laments. So much depends on our manner of being and thinking … and of speaking.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.