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.