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How to become a punch line without really trying l Chuck’s World


Last updated 4/10/2019 at Noon

In the late 19th century, following the end of the Civil War, many southern states passed legislation and even amended their constitutions in order to prevent former slaves and their descendants from voting.

These included poll taxes, literacy tests, and other restrictions on the franchise, many of which remained on the books well into the 20th century before being ruled unconstitutional.

This isn’t news, or hidden somewhere in dusty pages. Attempts to suppress voting are as American as apple pie, with a long, ugly, violent history.

In the post-Reconstruction era, some states produced pretzel legislation, twisted and convoluted rules intended to keep black people from voting while allowing poor, illiterate white people to fill out ballots.

This was sometimes done by stipulating that if one’s ancestors could vote (referred to as “grandfathers” in the vernacular of that era), the right to vote was passed on through the generations.

These became known as “grandfather clauses,” and after the original meaning became irrelevant, it continued to be used in cases when a particular history allows for a particular exception. We use it today, all the time.

Which prompts the question: Should we?

It’s a serious question, although it sounds silly at first. There are nearly 200,000 words in the English language, many of them derivative and with unsavory histories and associations. In many cases, the etymology of a word or phrase is unknown to us (and to our listeners or readers).

Are we supposed to police our vocabulary for stray words that have ancient associations nobody really knows about anymore?

A friend of mine brought this up the other day, after she read a surprising article listing perfectly ordinary expressions that have evil origins, most of them blatantly racist. She’s a voracious reader and a lover of words, so if she was surprised then I suspect most of us would be, too.

My friend wasn’t trying to censor anyone, or even suggest that we change our ways. She just decided that since there are plenty of words in English, and so plenty of alternatives, if the history of a specific word or expression bothers her she could just use something else.

Few of the words or phrases she mentioned as examples are in my normal vocabulary rotation, so this discussion was mostly theoretical for me. Maybe the next time I think to say that something was “grandfathered in,” I might think twice. Maybe.

I think it’s an interesting discussion, though. I’m pretty sure most of us don’t want to unintentionally offend someone else, no matter how much we chafe at “political correctness” (whatever that means to you).

If your name is John but you prefer that I call you Bill, I might not understand, but I’d be a jerk if I insisted on referring to you as John.

Mostly, though, it reminded me that I’ve been struggling a little with language lately, trying to decide between erring on the side of common courtesy and making a really funny joke.

And I’m referring to the O-word here, in case you were wondering. The direct antonym of “young,” that is. Don’t make me spell it out.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in hospital waiting rooms lately, never exciting but ideal for observing humans. Vulnerable humans, bored humans, happy humans, sick humans, anxious and worried humans, but mostly, it seems to me, humans with some miles on them.

No surprises here. If you live long enough, you’re probably going to end up in a hospital waiting room eventually. In this particular hospital, on that particular day, I’d estimate that the average age was somewhere north of 70.

It’s just an estimate. I didn’t go around checking IDs.

I was one of the bored humans, so I had a lot of fun just watching. One older guy sitting across from me was reading a magazine with a lot of recipes, apparently, which he proceeded to recite aloud to the entire waiting room in case we were all wondering about dinner.

Then there were the wanderers, senior citizens who got up to use the restroom and forgot to scatter breadcrumbs on the carpet. I watched one woman walk up and down the hallway for 12 minutes (of course I timed her), sticking her head in the room occasionally, but obviously not recognizing it as the place she just left.

It’s actually pretty easy to get lost in this hallway. This woman wasn’t confused or upset. She just got lost for a few minutes, and I watched and texted my wife with the play-by-play. It was very entertaining.

And very familiar, as I suspect this is exactly how I look in a parking lot. Any parking lot. And I’ve always got breadcrumbs.

You see my problem? A waiting room is like a candy store for stereotypes, and yet I wasn’t window shopping. I was part of the display, and I wasn’t bringing the average age of the room down all that much.

That’s OK. I can make jokes at my own expense. My kids certainly do.

I just don’t seem to be able to use the word “old” anymore to describe certain people and their behaviors, not when it pretty much describes me. Until I find a new word, I think I’ll have to stop making jokes.

It’s fine, though. Next week, I have a bunch of new recipes I’d love to share with you.


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