The lost language of our time

Published 12:12 pm Monday, May 7, 2018

There are rich, verbal signposts to my life.

Names like Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss; events like The Normandy Invasion; teams like The Brooklyn Dodgers; metaphors like the Iron Curtain.

They populate my memory, names of things frequently talked about: Ethiopia and Holocaust and the High Water of 1927.

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My father told me what a “kraut” was when I asked him and said that I should never use that word again.

I just can’t figure out if it was language that was so much more memorable then — or life.

For instance, in things unmentionable — or nearly so — pregnancy meant that you were “in the family way” if you were married — or had gotten “bigged” if you were not.

Old ladies curate a lot of language in their talk. And you have to be a certain age and circle to know what “step-ins” were…

…or “lagniappe”, meaning a little something extra that the storekeeper gave away to thank you for doing business with him. It might be an extra measure of flour or salt at no extra cost, or perhaps a 13th donut given free with the 12 you ordered.

Can you imagine Kroger’s doing that?

Do you suppose “Hong Kong” and “Tiananmen Square” will anchor Asia in the minds of children like “Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” anchored ours?

Children, with no connection to those who lived it, once teased each other about pants too short they liked to call “high-waters.” But they didn’t know that language was once literal, and that to those who were alive then long ago, “High Water” meant the river overflowed, brutally and deadly here.

Can those who dismissed his “easy” sentiment in “Old Soldiers Never Die,” fail to feel the shivers as General MacArthur promised his young comrades at West Point that his last conscious thoughts would be of them “and the Corps…and the Corps…and the Corps.”?

Or President Truman, who had been right to fire him.

Thieves and advertisers steal our words.  But when Maxwell House promised coffee that was “good to the last drop,” we expected it. Because there was no reason not to. Now children grow up thinking “Dawn” is a detergent.

The opening of the first great medic series on TV was “The eye of an eagle; the heart of a lion; the hand of a woman” – to describe a doctor.

But the tone of life and language was about to change.

Gertrude Stein said we were a “lost generation.”

Jimmy Baldwin wrote that nobody knew his name. Our names that last longer than our lives. But nobody knew his name. No one knew him.

And Martin, dear Martin, sitting in a Birmingham jail, smuggling out a letter written on bits of toilet paper, trying to explain to his countrymen how he couldn’t explain to his child why she couldn’t go to the park across the street reserved for whites.

Was there ever such a time and language?

Oh my, yes!

Not now though, and perhaps not soon again.

Yolande Robbins is a community correspondent for The Vicksburg Post. You may email her at