STICKS AND STONES by Garry Armstrong

A while back, Marilyn wrote a piece using the word chutzpah. This is a word I’ve badly mangled when I try to say it. It’s just 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 it in public anymore. It’s a word. I respect it because it carries its own 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 — used correctly — but dangerous used ignorantly.

I grew up in a home full of books including dictionaries. Huge dictionaries the size of an Austin and, of course, pocket-size dictionaries for all purposes. I always carried one when I worked and I can’t begin to tell you how many time people asked me why — being on television — I needed a dictionary. Or why I cared about spelling or punctuation.

My parents insisted on using proper language and crisp diction. Street slang guaranteed a head slap or a smack. 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 my attic.  This is true and some of those toys are pretty old.

A friend and I were trading insults the other day. I snapped at him with, “That’s very white of you”.  His smile said everything. Words!  You gotta know who, when, and where to use them. It was the right word for him and would have been deeply insulting for someone else.

When I was 19 years old and worked in a department store in 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 meaning. It was just a word. What was the big deal?  I was 19 and knew everything.  I used big words — “20-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 because apparently, being Black, I wasn’t supposed to “speak well.”

After all, they were just words.

John Wayne, of all people, once commented on words and ethics.  It was film dialogue which still reverberates a half-century later. The 1961 movie “The Comancheros”  had Texas Ranger “Big Jake” Cutter (John Wayne) 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 1960s 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, both 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.

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

Today, words are often tossed around loosely on social media with little regard to truth or the repercussions of ill-advised words. We have a president who uses words without a thought in a daily barrage of tweets. Our media is engaged in a daily war of words, 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 a direct conversation with friends in the same room. Words have become an endangered species.

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

Words!  I love’em.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

58 thoughts on “STICKS AND STONES by Garry Armstrong”

  1. Truth, Garry — it’s just words! Of course not, but the White House seems to believe that — and their words, alternative words, may just get us into major difficulty!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sadje, free flow conversation seems out of style these days. People tweet instead of talking to one another. Conversation allows you to rethink what you’re saying — assuming you’re really listening.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I still look up the origins of words and phrases. A lot of things we commonly use have surprising hidden depths and meaning.
    Reading does so much to enrich a youngster’s vocabulary… as does getting it wrong a few times! In this society of visual entertainment that we have created, I wonder what we are losing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember being corrected on words I pronounced wrong (I’d only seen them in a book, after all) so I thought Tucson was one town and Tuckson was another. So many others. No one was mean about it, but they did laugh, probably because it was funny. I tried not to get too bent over my mistakes. After all, books don’t give pronunciation.

      Of course now, with Kindle, they DO give pronunciation. I know I’m supposed to love “real” books more, but I really enjoy the Kindle. Lightweight and has it’s own nightlight. AND if’s got at least a thousand books — audible and regular — on it. What’s NOT to love?

      As for looking things up — I often come up with posts because I looked up a word and found it had other, much more obscure and interesting meanings, so I read the links and I learn a ton of new stuff. Learning new things is the MOST fun I’ve ever had.

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      1. I’ve done a fair few of those in my time…though the most hilarious was early in my time in France when I mispronounced the French word for queue as ‘cul’…which, in the vernacular, means something quite different… 😉

        I agree, though…learning is always fun.

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    2. Sue, I also go to my dictionary and or thesaurus when I’m unsure about words or pronunciation. Ditto spelling. Marilyn and I often spell check with each other. Even in our casual, informal comments on this site — I try not to be lazy.
      Reading was my first love – before movies. My imagination was always fired up by books. Still is today. Reading can be inspirational.
      I still cannot say “Chutzpah” properly — even though I silently practice. I have those images of Billy Crystal and Robin Williams making fun of me trying to be a smarty pants when I said “Chutzpah”. Marilyn keeps rehearsing me. Ya gotta have enough spit as you say “Chutzpah”.

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      1. I’m more likely to be guilty of typos than spelling mistakes… not that there is any difference for hte reader! I do believe that reading a lot and early teaches you how to spell and enhances a child’s vocabulary enormously.
        Mind you, I envy you having met Robin Williams… even if you were on the receiving end of his wit 😉

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    3. Sue, I’ve mentioned this before but it’s exhibit A for this conversation. Our home library included Eric Sevareid’s “Not So Wild A Dream”. I think the title grabbed me and I read it as a grade schooler. Some of it I didn’t understand, some of it was very clear to me. Decades later, I met Mr. Sevareid and shared the story. The normally dour commentator smiled broadly when I told him I was 8 or 9 years old when I first read his book. He quizzed me and I passed.

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      1. I read a lot of books ‘too’ early too… and then went back and read them again. The stuff that matters worms its way into the mind and imagination and waits for us to be ready.

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    4. Sue, during my working years, I always (almost always) checked the dictionary before using words I wasn’t sure were appropriate. I also wanted to check pronouncers. My “ingenue” embarrassement was a reminder for me. I had big dictionaries on my office desk and carried pocket dictionaries when traveling.

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  3. Well there, you’ve said it Garry. Your family and mine shared some of the same values. No street slang in the house, tons of books including a huge set of encyclopedia.., books, books, books, books on everything. Music, poetry, drama, art, science and even a little touch of philosophy, you name it and we had a book. Proper diction was expected and chastised when fluffed over. Then there were those questionable compliments as to how well we spoke…, Damnit! we spoke English, a seemingly lost language these days.

    I was placed in a remedial reading class in grade school because my teachers thought I wasn’t learning to read. I stumbled through my turn to read out loud, in class, because I never paid much attention to where we were in the text. So, after whizzing through the “remedial” workbooks the reading teacher asked to speak with my mother. Mom came to school and was told there was nothing wrong with my reading. Mom asked, “so what’s his problem then?” the teacher responded, “why don’t you ask him?” Turns out I was simply bored with “Fun With Dick and Jane.” The only character in those books I really liked was Spot, their dog.

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    1. Mine too. There was (for years) a “pay for” lending library in Fresh Meadows which was either a very long walk or a relatively short bus ride. I usually walked because I was a kid and that’s what kids did. Why spend 15 cents for a bus? You could buy a piece of pizza for the same money! Whenever they changed over the old library for new books, my mother would go and buy almost the whole library. Everything — fiction, non-fiction, history. You name it, she bought it. So not only did we have books, but we had a literal whole library. Of course, FINDING a particular book was an adventure and you usually found yourself reading something else and getting a whole new set of ideas.

      We actually had to build an extra room on the house for the library. It had guest beds (which we neede anyway, and every wall was lined with bookcases.

      How could you grow up without reading? it was to the brain what growing was to your body!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ben, thanks for the share. Yes, we’re kindred spirits. Of course, my hearing impairment prompted me to mispronounce words I didn’t hear correctly. But that’s a small excuse. Speech therapy in college helped a lot with the diction. I learned to really lean hard on those d’s, t’s, s’s and other word endings I didn’t hear. It almost feels excessive. I try to stay with it even in informal chit chat. It’s more obvious now with my cochlear implant. I can hear when my diction is sloppy. I repeat the word properly.
      I love your “Dick and Jane” anecdote. Spot was also a favorite with me. Probably a harbinger of my role as “DogFather” in later years.

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  4. News people don’t seem to value or understand words anymore. Everything has to be so dramatic that they end up sounding stupid and uninformed.
    I love how a 2 cent increase for a gallon of gas is a “spike” in the price. Gas seems to spike every few weeks. Their lack of language skills drives me nuts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have you listened to SPORTS announcers? They have rendered adverbs redundant. They do not have a grip on “the complete sentence” as a concept. I’m ALWAYS yelling at the TV.

      “IT’S FEWER, NOT LESS, YOU MORON!”

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    2. Ben, you’re on the money about the current crop of newsies. Marilyn and I were laughing at the ABC news weekend anchor last Sunday. He was delivering the headlines at the top of his newscast. It sounded like the guys who used to voice the old movie “coming attractions”. Deadly Snowstorms! Biblical wintry weather! Horrific Fires! Bloody shootings! Chaos at the White House! I was laughing because the newscaster was actually yelling – like someone was flogging him with a whip to talk faster and louder. The “Deep Freeze” has really brought out the Barnum & Bailey side of TV News. Some of the live shots look like scenes from “The Thing” or “Ice Station Zebra” with the reporters wearing impressive storm gear and goggles and invoking the biblical enormity of these winter storms. We didn’t resort to these tactics when covering the Blizzard of ’78 which was Cecil B. DeMille bigly. I think I looked like a frozen Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” – How cold was it? The snot froze on my face and it was difficult to move my lips. Of course, the suits kept yelling at me over the IFB to “Smile, Garry, smile. We have a big viewership”. Wankers!

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      1. It’s become a who’s the most sensational and over the top. You can’t call them journalists anymore. A journalist has a full command of the language.
        I work in a job where words mean something. When I miss speak I’m wrong.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ben, we used to laugh at people who called themselves journalists. In our “network”, it always sounded like the person thought he/she was better than a grunt reporter. They usually used fancy words to impress. But that’s another story.

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      2. When I was no longer under the thumb of my parents, my speech patterns got a little sloppy. Jeffrey, our mutual friend, took their place. He would correct me from time to time on my misuse of the language. I think he had some idea that I too would become a radio or TV voice personality aided by his prodding and recommend that I attend Announcers Training Studios, in NY.., but that wasn’t my calling.

        So lets skip forward to me living in Phoenix and starting my own broadcast production company, Cholfin & Taylor. More times than I care to speak about, I had to do the end tags on the commercials we were producing because we didn’t have the budget to hire a professional. When I listened back to those spots I was appalled at the dictional (is that a word) mistakes I made. Like Marilyn said, “ds”, “ts” and “ss”, among other things, caused a mandatory re-read. Suddenly all of my parent’s nagging and Jeffrey’s prodding came back in a rush.., I was not free.

        Enough about me. I loved your references above to the increase in drama, and decrease in language of modern day news casters and sports announcers, not to mention, most are young, good looking and dressed to the hilt with little, if any, character (where’s Walter and Chet when we need them). I can’t tell one from the other on any channel. Another reason to avoid the News.., they’ve no “skin in the game.”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ben, I hope i’m Not being an old fart but many of these young newsies have no sense of history. I was watching CNN with a group of angry, young Black “journalists” who were talking about Dr. King and the Civil Rights marches. Clearly, they were using magazine, social media and movie comments. They didn’t have a real sense of what it was like to be in one of those marches. Clearly no sense of history and they were yelling at each other and “getting down” more and more. Really annoying.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought everyone HAD Strunk. I know it was a required text in college and as each has worn out, I’ve replaced it. NOW I have to both on Kindall and as a soft cover. I don’t think I’ve seen it as a hardcover. It’s not a long book, but wise.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love words and learning the meanings of words I’ve never used or perhaps heard used but never actually saw in print. Words open doors and close others if you use them incorrectly and I sigh at the plight of youth today who have no understanding of much beyond LOL or LMAO or any other word longer than 4 letters and it’s doubtful many no the difference between a consonant and a vowel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Covert, I think the love affair with words, written and spoken, has been shoved aside for social media short hand which I don’t understand.
      I love the fabric of a well turned sentence. I make it a point to email writers, columnists, etc to thank them for well written pieces. They’re usually grateful, expressing surprise at my appreciation of their efforts. Just paying it forward.

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  6. I mangled, mispronounced “ingenue” on television. I was full of myself, reviewing a movie.
    When I returned to the newsroom, the assignment editor apprised me of my mistake. I walked alway slowly, my face red with shame.

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