IRISH RAMBLINGS #13: “Kevin and Paul Debate Linguistics and the Anguish Languish” (from: ‘MY IRISH DIARIES: Travels Through Ireland North & South’) (© KPKeelan)


My second of 10 sojourns to Ireland was a summer-long storytelling tour of the island that was certainly one of the highlights of my life. I kept copious journals recording my remarkable experiences. When I read them in 1996, I realized there was a book in it. So I wrote one. Took about a year and a half, but it was time well spent. I am a much better writer as a result, and let’s face it: anyone can begin writing a book. It’s an achievement to FINISH writing a book. I never attempted to publish, as travel writing is like milk: it has an expiration date. The Ireland I describe in this book no longer exists. Little more than a decade later, it is almost an historical document. But it’s good. I like it. It’s fun to read. That is enough. It would be even better if people would read it. Books like having readers. It makes them happy.

*  *  *

. Back at Toad Hall in lovely Glengariff Ireland, the games resumed.  My mother Arline Liley is a skillful wordsmith and ardent crossword puzzle enthusiast, making her a formidable Scrabble opponent, so I rejoiced disproportionately at my occasional unlikely victory.  (You’ve probably heard the saying: “Given enough time, if a hundred monkeys typed randomly on a hundred typewriters, one of them would eventually write Hamlet”?  So it was with my winning at Scrabble.)  But I emerged victorious from our first match that summer- a very rare and encouraging omen.

. One night that week, during a difficult match, I was hopelessly stuck, with crummy tiles and no place open to lay them.  The only word I could see to play was an admittedly questionable slang term.  I wondered aloud if I could get away with playing a word like “dis”- meaning ‘to devalue or disrespect’.  My Mother knew the word, but the urban lingo had not yet worked its way into her husband Paul’s lexicon.  Though not a participant in the game, Paul felt it necessary to weigh-in with his judgment on the matter.  A great lover of what he called the “anguish-languish”, Paul argued forcefully that slang would never be language, as long as it was not listed and defined in a dictionary.  I saw his point- quite understandably those are the rules of Scrabble, but I argued that the English language is much more alive than that.  Printed dictionaries are, by definition- behind the curve of the evolving spoken word.  If someone coins a phrase and it reverberates enough in the common unconscious, it will begin to gain steam, eventually appearing in popular media, until it reaches a linguistic critical-mass, where it is shared and understood- becoming an acknowledged word.  Yesterday’s slang, is fodder for tomorrow’s dictionary.  Meanings change as well.  Two black friends at work frequently used the term “whack” to mean “bad”.  If this usage catches fire and persists, some day a dictionary will attribute a new meaning to whack: “Not good, bad, unwanted or unacceptable”.  If I use a word like, for example: “discombobulate”, which though perhaps not in any dictionary in the house, still imparts exactly what I intended it to, have we not communicated?  Is this not language?  Shouldn’t this standard be enough?  The upshot of the “dis” controversy, was that I could not play the word until that new dictionary was printed and brought into the house.  As far as Paul was concerned, “dis” was not, and probably never would be, a word- end of discussion.

. The following afternoon, as I sat in the kitchen eating my typically lazy breakfast, I overheard Paul, who was reading in the parlor, utter an involuntary exclamation of surprise.  “Well I’ll be!”, he mumbled to himself, calling me into the room.  Handing me the newspaper, he suggested I read the following section out loud: “Yesterday, the reverend Jessie Jackson was asked how he felt about having been publicly dissed by filmmaker Spike Lee…”  Under the circumstances, Paul felt compelled to revise his limited definition of what makes a word, a word.  “If The London Times would use the term ‘dis’- it must be a real word!  After All, it’s their language!“  Then, with a sly grin he added: “That’s whack!”.

. I rested my case.  It was ‘whack’ that I couldn’t use ‘dis’ in Scrabble…

(Notable to NOTE: Now, in the 4th edition “DIS” and “DISS” are both legal Scrabble plays.)


© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About KPKeelan

Fool, Philosopher, Lover & Dreamer, Benign TROUBLEMAKER, King and Jester of KPKworld, an online portal to visual and linguistic mystery, befuddlement and delight.
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