Miss Priss lives with me, in my metaphorical basement. She’s exactly my age, and sort of looks like me. But instead of greeting the world with a friendly smile that might distract the eyes of others from the physical imperfections of age, she pulls down the corners of her mouth, thereby deepening the parenthetical lines around it and turning her face into a flesh-colored prune.
Fortunately, you almost never get to see Miss Priss. She keeps a very low profile. But she is all ears. She hears everything anyone ever says to me. And although she contains herself in public, she suffers deeply from the increasingly severe linguistic assaults on her sensibilities we two encounter as we advance towards our one hundred years together.
It’s true that during the course of her education, Miss Priss was required to study etymology and the development of Modern English. At that time, she even acquired some minimal knowledge of Anglo-Saxon. [She still knows, for instance, that “Hee, hee” was spelled “Hig, hig” in the eighth century.] She could once also haltingly read Chaucer. She is therefore well aware language evolves, despite the efforts of lexicologists to stop it dead in its tracks. Thus she further knows, and theoretically accepts, that if it didn’t evolve we would still be speaking Beowulf’s mother tongue.
But what kind of evolution? The English Miss Priss and I learned in the middle of the twentieth century was a perfectly serviceable and universally acceptable instrument of communication as far as we’re both concerned. [I hesitate to call it the King’s English because we were, and remain, American. But some differences of spelling and usage aside, it came pretty close.] What Miss Priss can’t understand is why the language she knows and loves so well can’t meander along until she’s gone before transforming itself into something else? Why does it have to evolve in such appalling ways in her lifetime?
[You see how I am cleverly putting these questions in Miss Priss’s mouth? Not all the readers of this blog are quite as antiquated as Miss Priss, and I certainly would not wish to offend or alienate a single one of them. She, on the other hand, does not “blog.” Indeed, she finds the very word offensive. “What’s wrong with ‘write an online column’?” she asks.]
Miss Priss does not entirely object to the entry into her beloved language of new words or expressions that fill some hitherto unmet need. I have actually heard her answer a question about what she thought of a movie with the monosyllabic “Meh.” This word is clearly an improvement on the prior alternative, “It was so-so.” After all, the French can say, “Comme ci, comme ca.” The Greeks can say, “Etsy ketsy.” High time we had something comparable. Especially when it’s essentially the same unspellable grunt many of us were already emitting when asked our opinion of something bland and unmemorable, with just an “m” appended up front.
Miss Priss has also been known to say about one of her little excitements that it “blows her mind.” What’s more, I have heard her characterize someone for whom she has nothing but scorn as a “shithead.” Actually, the first time she heard the word “shithead,” she had to ask if it meant the same thing as “asshole,” a word relatively new to her that she had already embraced. But on being assured that it did, she took to it with alacrity as being a more accurate and pictorial description of that part of the other person’s anatomy she held in such contempt.
About alterations of commonly used expressions that destroy their meaning, Miss Priss is less welcoming. For instance, on those very occasional evenings when we sit down together to watch television commentators chew up the news, she can demand angrily of the screen, “What the hell does ‘I could care less’ mean?’ You mean you couldn’t care less, you shithead!” Although I deplore her use of a street epithet in the home, Miss Priss is perfectly right, of course. From the context of his previous remarks, it is clear the commentator in question was now trying to tell us he cares so little about whatever it is, that it is not possible to care less than he does because he is already at the very bottom of any ability to care. In other words, he absolutely could not, even if he tried very hard, care less than he already does. Whereas what he has told us is that he does care some, and could care less (if he put his mind to it).
When I admonish Miss Priss for not picking her battles, she retorts that I should mind my own business. That she will fight on till she dies. Then she tells me that as she has no “blog” of her own, if I still want to be her friend I should put in mine a list of the linguistic horrors and abominations that really make her squirm and curl up inside. Then other people besides me will know what they are. And maybe, just maybe, one or two of them will agree with her. Perhaps they’ll even add a few horrors and abominations of their own. Wasn’t that how “Occupy Wall Street” began?
I know it’s wrong to give Miss Priss a platform for her nutsiness when she adamantly refuses to sit down at a computer herself, much less sign up for a WordPress account. But that “if I still want to be her friend” business got to me. How can I kick her out of my (metaphorical) basement at this point in our joint life?
SEVEN THINGS MISS PRISS HATES:
I. The use of “so” as an adjective or an adverb, usually meaning “very” or “very much,” in conjunction with an entirely unexpected word or locution. As in, “That is so now. That is so Gwendolyn. That is so what we don’t want. That is so too much!” [You can say that one again, mutters Miss Priss.]
II. The “adjective-ing” of other parts of speech. Usually preceded by the aforementioned “so.” As in, “That is so New York. That is so now. That is so you.” [I myself used this youth-speak as a kind of joke to end a post recently; someone who I know for a fact is old enough to collect Social Security took the bait and replied, in correlative language, that the Beatles were not “yesterday” but “NOW.” Which only goes to show “yesterday” and “now” are both firmly ensconced in their new usage and Miss Priss is wasting her time if she hopes my blogging can help dislodge them.]
III. The liberal sprinkling of “like” in the interstices of every sentence. As in, “He was, like, talking to me, like, very fast, and I was, like, not hearing him because I was, like, nervous about my history exam?” Persons who speak this way often end every sentence with a question mark even when it’s not a question. Don’t tell Miss Priss they’re just young and will outgrow it. That’s the baby fat excuse. The young who spoke this way a while ago have now grown up, taking their speech habits into adulthood and graduate school. Miss Priss and I hear them on the train platform at Princeton every time we go to New York. Miss Priss shudders. I try not to listen. What can you do? That last is a real question.
IV. The use of “go” and “goes” as a synonym for any other verb, in either present or past tense, indicating speech. As in, “I go, ‘Are you asking me out, or what?’ And he goes, ‘Do you want me to?’ Then my friend goes, ‘Are you two ever getting it on, or what?” So then we both go, “Butt out, will you?'” Yes, Miss Priss knows this is out-of-the-mouth-of-babes “speech,” undoubtedly reflecting faulty education in the school and in the home. Except you’d be surprised where else it crops up. As noted above, the speech-disadvantaged grow up, taking their disadvantages proudly into the adult world.
V. The use of “no problem” as a synonym for “You’re welcome.” As in (a): You give the waiter money to pay for your meal. He brings back the change. You say, “Thank you.” He assures you, “No problem.” Well of course it was no problem. It was his job. It would have been a big problem if he hadn’t brought back the change. Or (b): You ask the guy blocking your driveway with his delivery van to please move it. You even say “Thank you” as he stubs out his cigarette on your lawn to climb into the driver’s seat. You hear, “No problem.” It better not be a problem, buddy, because the motor vehicle regulations say no trucks can park across the ends of driveways. And what ever did happen to, “You’re welcome?”
VI. Routine use of meaningless memorized phrases in commercial contexts. Miss Priss especially loves it when we check out of the supermarket just before it closes, tired and cross because we’ve had a long busy day and couldn’t get there until late — only to hear the clerk wave us out the door into the black night with “Have A Good Day!” Miss Priss once broke her vow of silence in such situations to inquire acidly (through me), “When?” But the clerk didn’t get it. She had already turned to the next tired and cross shopper with her second piece of programmed speech, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” What would she have done if the customer had said no? Abandoned her register to search the aisles?
VII. The use of the word “share” as a synonym for “tell.” When Miss Priss and I were young, the word “share” had two meanings. The first meaning was when you gave a piece of something you had, like cake or ownership of a house, to someone else. You shared your cake, or house ownership, with that other person. As a result, you had less of it, but the other person also had some of it. The second meaning involved a secret, or something very confidential. If you confided your secret, or confidential information, to another person, you had shared it with him. But only the two of you knew it, and both understood that it remained secret, or confidential. Now, however, everyone shares all of everything with everyone. NOBODY HAS LESS. AND NOTHING IS SECRET. (Unless you take the precaution of marking it “private.”) WordPress urges us to “share” every blog post we like. What WordPress means is for us to tell everyone how good it is, if that’s what we think, by sending it to them. Was anything wrong with just “telling?” Miss P. and I were getting along fine with it before “share” came along with its bullhorn.
Miss Priss wants me to continue with her stations of the cross by listing some cliches worn so thin by overuse that whatever their merit in the first place they have now become a yawn. “24/7” (meaning “all the time”) and “At the end of the day” (meaning “as a result” or “finally”) come immediately to mind, but believe me, she can think of many more to “share” if I let her.
However, I am sure you must have had quite enough of Miss Priss by now. So I’m sending her back to her basement. But not before you promise her you will try very hard never again to use an expression carried over from texting, like a flea in your luggage, when writing anything she may see. No more LOLs, ROFLs, OMGs if you can possibly help it. Otherwise she might die of a broken heart. And I would miss her.
Every one who’s getting old needs a Miss Priss of their own, and she is mine. I try to run a blog she would approve of. So please do promise. Cross your heart and hope to you-know-what. If you’re as old as we are, you’ll know what that means.