Because I am not clever enough to come up with hundreds of combinations of words, I have found that I am overly reliant of certain words and phrases. It’s not that there aren’t millions of words in the English language, it’s simply, that I don’t know them all. Like a lazy explorer, content to look at maps, or out the window of my cozy ship, as a writer, I am content with using the favorites in my very intimate vocabulary. If I am forced to, or when I am feeling particularly flashy, I may bust out the old thesaurus, but that minimal effort is reserved for when I try and impress people. But I am not alone. Looking around me, I can hear the same combinations of words and sounds all too often. Is there a comfort in the familiar? Or is everyone as unoriginal as myself? Use a phrase enough times; you got yourself a catch phrase and if you use a catch phrase enough, not many people are going to want to talk to you. But despite, maybe our best efforts, and the fact we aren’t 90’s sitcom characters, the phrases we use say something about who we are, and where we are coming from, more than perhaps, possible lack of creativity.
Personally I have developed quotations that say a lot more about myself, then I intended. I mostly say words without meaning, and save the self-revelation for the cryptic poetry I send to The New Yorker. (If the world were ever going to see it, I would want it to be prestigious.) But aside from poetic self-examination, talking about myself (verbally) is not my strong suit. But taking certain often used verbal examples, One can see a lot more about me with analysis. A certain, revealing, quote goes as so:
Me: “Olive (or really any cat) What did you have for breakfast?
Me (in high pitched voice): “Umm…. Catfood?”
From this brief selection, of the hundreds of seemingly meaning things I say, one can deduce many things. Firstly I was at one time very lonely and had only a cat to talk to. And secondly, I obviously greatly over exaggerate my own cleverness to a point where I would say something as silly, derivative, and childish to anyone over the age of five, and expect them to find it half as charming as I do. Simply, this witty cat-banter, spells out who I really am, a lonely megalomaniac, even if I am not saying those words exactly. And although it is drawing a large conclusion from something so idiotic, and even though much of this conversation is redundant, one can understand that phrases are revealing.
Then there are the phrases we hear as children. That phrase that opens the floodgates of memories, taking you back to a time when you wore matching pajamas, took a nightly bath, and where hiding under the covers made all your problems cease to exist. Sometimes this phrase was the use of your entire name, signaling you were in deep trouble. Maybe this phrase is in the tradition of a birthday song, or a morning wake up call. It is possible that the phrase isn’t particularly a happy one. For me, the combination of a few words in a sentence takes me back to my bedtime, and then my dad would tuck me in.
In my childhood existence, the bedtime tuck-in, the morning wake up, the breakfast making, and the homework checking were my mother’s domain. She was general commander of her army of children. She was responsible for clothing us, and making sure we were clean, and fed. Because my father worked on the railroad, and would, as I imagined when I was little, ride the rails across the country, taking passengers, circus animals, and boxcars full of candy to their destinations, was away a lot. He was a conductor - on the railroad, a clarification I made because I felt it necessary to explain that my father, unlike Bugs Bunny, didn’t wave a baton around for a living. He was away even more because in the summers, on his days off, he ran the family farm and looked after a thousand other household tasks that were beyond my comprehension (ie. didn’t revolve around me.) So on occasions when he was home, and after I was tucked in as snug as a bug in a rug, my dad came to my room, lied down, and began his bedtime story to me, always starting the same way:
“When I was little, I was very short…”
There was a never-ending assortment of stories, and sagas, that could stem from this opening line. Each one painting a picture of the fantastical childhood my father had, and what life was like before I was born. Days before The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Robert Muench, were painted grandly with his creative brush. Stories about my dad, his dog Smokey, and his friends, who I knew as grown men, existed in my imagination as young boys. Tales involved building rafts to sail down sloughs, building log cabins in the bush, and snow storms that went on for days that piled snow so high it covered telephone poles. Through this phrase I can hear my dad’s words reciting his childhood to me. It bring back memories of hugging my teddy bear, and pressing up against his gigantic form, in order to warm his back. The opening line of all my dad’s stories always started the same way, but when I hear the words, my mind is flooded with stories he told me, some clear, some combinations my memory created. And all it takes is a few words strung together.
Another phrase from my childhood, which is probably more common, and decidedly less heart warming is a phrase, I, myself, threw around more than once from the time I could talk until well into adolescence. Being the youngest of six children is nice because you always have a group of people around you to help you out, to pour you juice, and to force into playing with you. What isn’t great about being the youngest is that you have a large number of people all telling you what to do. So when I was younger (and let’s face it now and forever more) I had trouble accepting their orders, advice, and recommendations. Being a thoroughly unoriginal child, I coined the classis “You aren’t the boss of me!” as my personal manta. Many a temper tantrum erupted with this declaration. Many and argument was won, and many more escalated by the use of this phrase. Strangers, sisters, aunts, and many times my own parents were informed that they were persona non-grata when it came to running my life. Not a retelling of my formative years is completed till someone does a, surprisingly accurate impersonation of me, putting hands on his or her hips and shouting the catch phrase of my youth. What I thought at the time was that I was being an independent thinker, when in reality came across like a snotty brat, much to my embarrassment. If only my siblings had worse memories I could re-paint my childhood with the use of that phrase, and color myself a passive protestor, or an active thinker. I could paint a portrait of myself, much like my father did in the Huck Finn-ing of his childhood, as a young, pasty Gandhi. But unlike my father, who happens to be the oldest child in his family, I have ten witnesses to contradict me. So while I take comfort in the fact that I was at least spirited I am irks me is the unoriginality of my wording. Could I not have a statement more eloquent with the same staunch clarity? I suppose not. Still the line got across the limited understanding I had of the world around me. Even though my parents were, for the lack of a better word, the boss of me, and even though I made no decisions for myself, the phrase expressed the desperate need to be in control. It’s a line I have strangely clung to all these, years, much to my own detriment.
Both the beauty of becoming an adult, and also the draw back in an auditory nature, is that we often develop a greater vocabulary, one that usually entails a learning of a few new words. These news words are four letters long, and can be used on their own, or as part of a sentence. Be they nouns, or adjectives these new words we acquire as we grown older ad a certain je ne se qua to our phrases. Suddenly nothing is a simple statement. Everything is a colorful and comedic, expletive ridden declaration. Adult words are useful in descriptions, and the analysis of events, and as a bonus they are down right cathartic. The words we learn become our “go to’s” as we get older, and just as we did when we were children we rely on them to express ourselves. What does this say about our human condition? I have no idea, according to my Mother, I’ve never spoken any of those words.