Lost words

Growing up on the western border of Southern Appalachia in the 70s and 80s was the end of an era. The people who largely raised and cared for me were adults during the Depression, who had values their children would not share and would, in fact, actively run away from when they got older.

In the years after the Second World War, their children would seek to distance themselves from the hardships their parents had faced, would go to school, would get careers instead of jobs, and would often move to town as soon as they could, and their kids would grow up to smoke dope, listen to rock and roll, and have kids my age.

But that wasn’t my story or my parents. My Dad was born to parents who were older than his peer’s parents, and so we were caught in a warp of sorts. I have always had much more in common with the generation before mine than I did with my own. I was the first generation to leave home and move to the city, in a pattern more in common with people born a generation before me than my own.

So in boot camp, I was the ridiculous kid who crumbled cornbread into his sweet milk in the dining hall unironically. I was teased unmercifully once in college for saying “My Stars!” when overwhelmed with the sheer audacity of something. I had country words – words that did not belong in those august halls of academe.

In fact, I think I miss the words most of all. Words I no longer hear, and that have, for all intents and purposes, disappeared, that remain in collective memory only as the butt of jokes on reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies.

My people did not think about things; neither did they reflect. Instead, they studied on it. One did not do something soon, but directly. It’s been an age since I heard anybody called a peckerwood. And while my current peers are likely to respond to a shock with an expletive, my grandmother would have said, in response to any shocking revelation, “Well, I swan!”.

I don’t think folks swan anymore. And I think we are poorer for it.

It’s sort of like how I lost my accent: I began to try to be broader – to communicate and be heard by a wider audience, both as a kindness to them but also because I suspected, deep down, that they, with their 5 o’clock news vocabulary, were smarter than we were. I tried to have the rhythms and cadence of Mr. Earnest Hemingway and the vocabulary of Time magazine, rather than the impeccable timing of the old men who told stories on the porch of Woodard’s Grocery, or the melodious cadence of those educated men (always men, sadly) who preached revival meetings in vast tents that traveled the Southland every summer.

I know we can’t go back. When I say I will do something Monday week, my people know what I mean – but in our mobile, transient world, I’m probably not talking to my people, but rather to somebody who grew up in Iowa or something. Instead, they need to hear it will happen next Monday, and since everyone on the TV and in movies says next Monday too, I either have to change or risk being misunderstood. And when I do say it the way they want me to, I lose a little bit of my heritage, my difference, and my past in the process.

The world I grew up in, a world I loved and was loved by, no longer exists. People are far more likely now to buy a biscuit at McDonald’s than they are to make them at home, and somebody is far more likely to take the Lord’s name in vain than they are to shout “Diddily Durn!” when they stub their toe against a rock. We can’t go back – it’s progress, they tell us. And our words and our distinctiveness are collateral damage along the way.

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