Sunday, June 15, 2008

Language lessons from the open road

Road trip! Oh, is there anything else in the world as much fun as a road trip? All right, maybe there is, but I just returned from driving 700 miles to Arkansas (and 700 back), and as a lover of language, well, golly, the open road is filled with wondrous sights and sounds.

It started in Tennessee, where I was behind a large (or, as they say there, one of them big ole) 18-wheelers. This one was a beauty, and someone — I assume the driver/owner — had paid a pretty penny to have some very fancy lettering scribed onto the back, up near the roof. The sentiment was writ large, loud, clear, patriotic and interesting, all at once. In fancy script, it said this: “Support Our Troups!”

Not long after that, the car radio delivered a jewel. I heard a male speaker describe a colleague at work who stood up for his principles, saying: “He fought the bosses tooth and neck.” That was rich enough, but that evening, I turned on the TV in the motel, and a speaker on a cable network put it this way: “They were fighting tooth and tongue.”

As I settled into the car seat for the next day’s leg of the journey, a pompous legal expert was asked if torture could ever provide valid information. He said, “That is one way to effectuate that result.” Isn’t that a great example of using language that is more complicated than necessary?

Throughout most of the state of Tennessee, I noticed recurrent billboards for an adult bookstore — a chain of them, I’d guess. The sign promised “video’s, magazines, toys and more.” I checked each sign as I drove, thinking maybe one of them would offer “video’s, magazine’s, toy’s and more.”

When I stopped to buy a soft drink at a gas station, I had a hot, sweaty, dusty guy in front of me, mulling over a bottle of Brisk sweet tea. I helped him decide by saying, “That stuff is great.” He said, “OK, I’ll try some,” whereupon he immediately opened it and took a long swig. He exhaled loudly, looked at me with an expression close to rapture, and said, “That is the best thang I have ever drank.” Thinking of this column, I honestly replied, “I was hoping you’d say something like that.”

When I arrived at my destination, Arkansas, the fun intensified. I went there to be with my brother, who had to spend some time in a hospital. One day as I was standing in line at the hospital cafeteria, the female cashier glanced at a man walking in and said, “Ha wheel.” I finally figured out that she had said “Hi, Will.” It was like North Carolina on steroids.

A friend of my brother’s, we’ll call him Pete, is unusual. He plays golf right-handed but he putts left-handed. I heard someone ask him, “How can you do that?” Pete’s answer was memorable: “I guess I’m amphibious.” Later that day, I heard Pete say: “I told you that was going to happen. Sometimes I can predict things.” When asked how, he said, “I guess I have ESPN.”

When my brother got home from the hospital, he called the city library to ask if he could renew a library book over the phone. I swear to you, the library worker said this: “You want to renew? You has to come in for that.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Arkansas and Tennessee have any kind of monopoly on language limitations. This great note came from Reader Marty: “When traveling through Virginia recently, I saw a sign posted in a gas station window advertising ‘Pure bread pit bull pups for sale.’ I couldn't resist asking the attendant if the pups were really made of pure bread.”

When I got home, Reader Chris — a university professor — told me about grading papers a week or two earlier. He said that one paper included this: “He made some comments that were definitely anti-semantic.” Yup, I had just heard a lot of those kinds of comments on my trip.

I have one more thing to tell you. While in Arkansas I saw an ad in the paper. It offered quite a deal, proclaiming: “Celebrate Mother's Day with a family golf outing! Play after 11 am on Sunday May 11 and Mom's play free!”

Sounds fun! Unless she’d rather stay home and watch video’s with wheel.