Marilyn recently wrote a piece using the word chutzpah which I’ve always badly mangled in pronunciation. It’s a word, what the heck? That was my take for many years until Robin Williams and Billy Crystal gave me a proper public whupping for butchering the pronunciation of chutzpah.  I don’t try to say Chutzpah in public anymore. It’s a word. I respect it because it carries different meanings and images.

These days, people often use words or phrases without understanding their origin or meaning. I hear political aspirants, celebrities, athletes and civic leaders say things that make me scratch my head and run back to my dictionary.  Words!  They can be powerful tools if used correctly. They can be dangerous if used in ignorance.

I grew up in a home full of books, including dictionaries. Big ones and pocket dictionaries. My parents insisted on using proper language and crisp diction.  Street slang guaranteed a head slap or a smack that stung. My two brothers and I were warned about using prejudicial clichés. Since my head has never been properly wrapped, I’ve been guilty of violating those warnings because of my warped sense of humor. Marilyn warns people that I have toys in the attic.  True.  Some of the toys are very old.

A friend and I were trading insults the other day. I snapped at him with, “That’s white of you”.  His smile said everything. Words!  You gotta know who, when, and where to use them.

Way back in olden times, I was 19 years old and worked in a department Store in Hempstead, New York. I was the only goy working in the children’s shoe department. I was waiting on a customer who drove me bonkers. I couldn’t take it anymore and told the parent he was a schmuck.

The manager quietly called me into the stockroom, explained what schmuck meant and asked me never to use it again — even if the customers were jerks. I think he was smiling although reprimanding me.  It was a word I’d often heard used in friendly banter, but I didn’t know its origin or real meaning. It was just a word. What was the big deal?  I was 19 and knew everything!  I used big words, “10 dollar” words to impress people. People often complimented me, saying I spoke very well.  I didn’t understand the veiled insult behind many of those compliments.

After all, they were just words.

John Wayne, of all people, once commented on words and ethics.  It was movie dialogue but still resonates more than half a century later.

In the 1961 film, “The Comancheros,”  Texas Ranger “Big Jake” Cutter (John Wayne) is lecturing his younger sidekick, Monsieur Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman). Regret asks Big Jake to spin a lie to his superiors to alleviate a problem. Big Jake refuses. Regret doesn’t understand, saying they are just “words.”

Big Jake, with that iconic Wayne frown, says softly, “Just words??  Words, MON-soor, are what men live by. You musta had a poor upbringing.”  Regret looks puzzled, not fully grasping the ethical code of this rough and ready Texas Ranger.  It’s a sublime moment and perfect for the young 1960’s when youth was defying the older generation’s moral code.

I recalled the scene years later in an interview with John Wayne. He smiled, shaking his head because he was in the middle of on-going national dissent against the Vietnam War.  Wayne was one of the most visible and vocal “hawks” in the Vietnam controversy. He had been ridiculed by strident protesters at a Harvard University gathering earlier that day.

“Words, dammit,”  Wayne looked at me, angry and sad. “My words! No damn Hollywood script. I have as much right as those damn college kids.”  Wayne was fuming. The Hollywood legend collected himself as I redirected the conversation to my time as a Marine. I had enlisted in 1959, fired up by the “Sands of Iwo Jima” script.

“Words. Good words,” I said to Wayne who smiled broadly.

Today, words are often tossed around loosely on social media, sometimes with little regard to truth or the repercussions of ill-advised words. We have a President who uses words without thought in a daily barrage of tweets.  Our media is engaged in a daily war of words, often ignoring crucial issues facing our nation and world.

Those of us of a certain age shake our heads as we watch young people immersed in tweets rather than direct conversation with friends in the same room. Words have become an endangered species.

I remember the good old days when me and friends went face to face with verbal jousts like “Your Mother wears combat boots!”

Words!  I love them.

Categories: #Writing, Celebrities, Garry Armstrong, Humor, Media, Movies, Words

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27 replies

  1. Those of us in that same age bracket who carried those dictionaries through our school years know what words we want to use so I find it punishing when spellcheck thinks it knows better. We were recently going to visit a town in the midwest – Gorham. I was sending emails to other relatives about the visit, and spellcheck kept changing it to Gotham. Batman goes to Gotham, I go to Gotham so give me a break. 🙂


  2. I could really relate to your post. I have ADD (or ADHD) and have often heard people say, “I’m so ADD” or “I guess I have ADD” when they have misplaced something or forgotten something. I say to myself, ‘You have no idea’ because they are throwing around a term that has become commonly used and simplified in the process. Actually having ADD means dealing with these and other executive functions all the time & every day. Another misuse of a word is another mental illness term: schizophrenia. It’s being used by people who don’t understand it to describe someone with a split personality (or the semblance of one). In reality, schizophrenia doesn’t have anything to do with split personality – it is a thought disorder that is characterized by delusions, hearing voices, and sometimes being overly paranoid. It is a very serious and often debilitating illness.

    There are many examples of “word abuse” – I think we are really lazy with our language nowadays. People don’t think before they speak!


    • Mental illness is widely misunderstood which is probably an understatement. I think most people haven’t a clue what any of it involves. But, let’s be fair. They don’t understand much of anything else, either. We are living in stupid central. I don’t know what has happened. When I was growing up, we were all trying so hard to be smarter. Now, it’s going backwards. If they aren’t already stupid, they are working hard to get there.

      My son IS ADD (not ADHD) and he has learned — as many of you have — to deal with it. But it made school very difficult for him and despite all the stuff they’ve learned about it, I don’t think they are any better at dealing with ADD or ADHD kids than they ever were. Of course, I think they’ve pretty much forgotten how to teach entirely.

      I hope we all live to see Americans get smarter again. I would like to live that long.


  3. Indeed words are very important. I do try to keep that in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I recall a furor over a congressman some years back who used the word “niggardly” in a public speech. it even made the news. He was labeled as a racist and it’s wonder they didnt run him through with knives. no one, apparently, even the newscasters, bothered to look it up.

    and not long ago online someone else used the same word (also properly) in a post, and she too was verbally beaten with stones and her post was deleted for being racist. Someone finally explained what it means, but there were people who were still convinced that it was a racial slur…


    Sometimes it isnt the word but the misinterpretation that does the damage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know. I’m careful about the words I use because so many people have a 12 word vocabulary and they aren’t sure about the meaning of two of them. It is such a relief talking to people who actually have a vocabulary!

      Liked by 2 people

      • not to mention restful. As an early reader and an only child in a family of word-oriented adults, I learned very quickly that while ‘ain’t’ and “it don’t matter” were death on the kitchen floor at home, but quite necessary in an exceedingly rural school.

        Liked by 1 person

        • And I’ve never really gotten the hang of bad grammar. I know what it sounds like, of course, and if I’m “doing dialogue,” I can create it. But it feels so wrong coming out of my mouth.


    • Judy. Judy. Judy. We have an old friend who is niggardly about picking up dinner checks. He’s Jewish.

      Too soon?

      Liked by 1 person

      • oh, I’ll let you off easy this time, garry, I KNOW you’ve been dying to say that–. but Cary Grant never did say that, you know.

        Nicely put, however.


  5. Love words and your article was fresh current concise and quite wonderful.tyvm

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Covert. I’ve forgotten the catalyst. We’re in the middle of re-watching “The West Wing”. I think a Jed Bartlett (Aaron Sorkin) monologue might’ve set my mind on fire. Golly, they had lots well used words in that iconic series. Iconic is one of my favorite words but it’s overused.


      • I watched The West Wing ( I don’t have tv and haven’t for 20 plus years) but can get online. It was well done. And why not use a spectacular word -Iconic – It’s a great word!


  6. I’m with you Garry – old school as far as using the correct words for the correct situation is concerned. I hate it when i see or hear people misusing words because they can’t be bothered looking up what a word actually means and they just guess and guess wrong or inappropriately.

    But i’m not immune to doing it myself and lately i’ve started to understand that the English grammar i literally (and i use that word advisedly) had beaten into me, while having a certain undeniable logical form (that very few truly understand), is something that can evolve and change over time and is able to be modified to suit common usage in some areas. Something the grammar nazi’s don’t seem to appreciate.

    The real problem with English words of course is that there are many words that are spelled the same but have entirely different meanings as well as words that sound very similar but mean entirely different things. This tends to cause general confusion and mistakes when writing or speaking (and hearing) words.

    The other thing about words hurting you is this: they can only hurt you IF YOU LET THEM whereas a stick, stone, knife or bullet will hurt you whether you choose to let them or not – ignore any of the latter and you can still be killed by them whereas if you ignore the words you come to no harm from them.

    The real power in words comes, of course, in their ability to introduce new ideas and ways of thinking to your brain and in your ability to use them to alter other people’s behaviour.

    Try shouting FIRE! loudly in a dark cinema and see how a single word can alter people’s behaviour very quickly. 😉

    (Although that last one is probably not a great idea to actually try).


    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve heard that they can only hurt if you let them, but I have come — over the years (because we ALL heard that one as kids, didn’t we) — that this isn’t true. Especially kids are terribly hurt by words. Casually said words by parents and teachers and other kids in school stick with you. Sometimes, they stick with you for a lifetime. Words can and do hurt very much and telling a kid that “words can never hurt you” when it’s obvious that they are terribly hurt doesn’t help them much. We need to also deal with the people who use words to hurt and especially those who don’t even realize how much their words hurt.

      You’d be amazed at how many “famous” people are deeply wounded by the things people say online and in person. You’d think they would get numb over the years, but they really don’t. Words hurt and the whole “not letting them” thing is a great idea, but it mostly doesn’t really work.

      Will a stone hurt? Yes, but you probably won’t spend a lifetime brooding over the emotional damage the stone left. Whereas if your father tells you you’re worthless, 50 years later you may very well be trying to prove he was wrong.

      Liked by 2 people

      • While i do understand and appreciate all you have said above, i stand by the fact that other peoples words will only hurt you – they only have power over you if you let them.

        Far too many people end up letting them and largely ruining their lives as a result for my preference.

        I was often hurt by words as a kid – kids can be intentionally as well as unintentionally cruel to one another.

        In growing up and becoming an adult i was able to realise how little other people’s opinions (of me) are worth. I used to think they were of far more value than was in any way ‘appropriate’.

        I like to think that after only 58 years i know better 😉

        it is my wish that others gain such knowledge far earlier than i did.



    • Bob, we’re kindred spirits.Believe I’ve said that before. As for yelling “fire” in a theater, many would probably stop to tweet and or take iphone pics instead of rushing to safety.

      Liked by 1 person

      • and I dont recommend it unless there IS a fire. I think in most places it’s illegal to do, unless there really is a fire. But yeah, they;d be snapping pictures and messaging people about it. nero, rome burning…

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I believe the “Your mother wears combat boots” was still active when my son was young. His response was “Yeah and so does my sister” Just words, but it caused the kid tossing the the insult to pause. [We did wear combat boots they were comfortable].

    Liked by 2 people

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