Thursday, June 08, 2006

Mom, Dad, North, South and the folk poetry of archaic slang

MARK DORROH

Living south of the Mason-Dixon Line is a sweet if unsettling experience for this Midwestern boy on his own.

One would have to conjecture at least part of the reason is rooted in Your Humble Correspondent's DNA. Daddy was a Mississippi Baptist farm boy gone north to make his fortune. Mom was a nice Pennsylvania Methodist girl gently reared in South Florida.

Although they were always happy to drive me to and from Sunday school, neither parent spent a lot of time congregating with coreligionists. It's fair to say my folks were freethinkers in a time when that mindset was publicly frowned upon by the putative elite. Their honorable social compromise was to keep their libertarian souls intact while observing most standard rituals of social decorum.

And decorum, my friends, is observed with some degree of variance depending upon latitude and attitude. My parents' dating history illustrates the point nicely.

When Ralph Dorroh met Gay Schell, he was properly smitten. By way of inviting her out to dine and dance with him, he asked if she would like to go "whoop and holler" some night.

Upon (brief) reflection, she thought not.

Ms. Schell was endlessly tickled with Daddy's down-home Southernisms such as, "I carried her to town."

"Did you wear a saddle," she would pertly inquire, "or did she ride you bareback?"

Fortunately, for me at least, the next time Mom saw Dad, he was wearing a crisp new suit, his curly black hair was shiny (as were his shoes), his tie was perfectly knotted and he'd sanded off many of the rough edges which had identified him as a man no nice young woman would allow courting privileges.

Eight weeks later, they wed.

Oh yeah, I forgot to say: My family's a little precipitous, a fact to which many of you had, no doubt, already twigged.

Anyway, with this mixed batch of genetic material, plus growing up in Northern Kentucky across the river from Cincinnati, I can sort of "pass" as a native in a lot of places. And getting back to Daddy's Dixie wasn't quite the culture shock I had anticipated, Nonwhite-Loving Yankee Meddler that I truly am.

Many Southern customs appeal to me greatly. For one thing, there's all this cool social hugging.

Folks down South will hug you on the merest pretext. All kinds of folks; big ones, little ones, black ones, white ones, female ones, male ones … it's like living in a giant commune of socially conservative hippies. That is to say, they don't necessarily want to have sex with you, but a hearty clinch and air kisses - between women and women or between women and men* - are accepted practice.

I used to really get off on it when the late Hopewell Mayor Teeny Ledbetter Wendell would see me at a city council meeting and accept a big hug. For whatever reason, I find it endlessly gratifying to greet elected officials with expostulations such as, "C'mere, Sweet Thang, and gimme some love!"

Which brings us to the theme of today's offering: I really want to bring back some of the best, most poetic examples of archaic slang.

Many of the really evocative ones never grow old: "Sweet Thang," for instance, has enjoyed a lifespan of at least a hundred years and it's still going strong. By comparison, "Cat's Pajamas," "Bee's Knees" and "23 Skidoo" have disappeared into the mists of time.

Which is a shame. So many of the vulgar expressions we employ could and should be replaced with the folk poetry of achaic slang. For instance:

The next time your supervisor drops a bale of work on you at 4:43 on a Friday with the demand that it be finished and on his/her desktop no later than noon, Monday, don't, upon his/her departure from your workspace, say, "Bleeeeeeeeep!" or give voice to your suspicions concerning the inappropriate and unhealthy diversity of species in his/her immediate family.

Try instead the terse, elegant, punchy "Rats!" If it's good enough for a lifetime loser like Charlie Brown, it's gotta have legs.

Alternatively, to express delighted surprise, instead of saying, "Whall, Gaw' D___!" try "My stars and garters!" or "Now don't that just about take the rag off'en the bush!"

Your friends will be charmed, as will that stud muffin at next table with the curly hair and spit-shined shoes. Also, you will have avoided breaking yet another Commandment.

Colorful, metaphorical hyperbole is another lost art these days. Mom, for instance, used to say prices were getting to be "higher than a cat's back." Say that today and you'll get a nasty letter from PETA.

One of Daddy's all-time great throwaways was his assertion that in June, the mosquitoes in Canada were "big enough to stand flat-footed and rape turkeys."

PETA wouldn't even bother sending the letter to Dad. Were he alive today, they'd be either hauling his butt into court every five minutes or mining his toothbrush with small, pressure-sensitive explosive devices.

Some people just don't appreciate folk poetry when they hear it.

* In most neighborhoods hereabouts.

2 comments:

Christian (real name) said...

This is perhaps the funniest... IN fact ! I would venture to say this IS the funniest post I've read in recent memory. Great fun and great writing. I'll keep reading.

Markdorroh said...

Dear C:

Thank you for your kind words ... I'm flattered out of my little ole pea-picking mind.