Fragrances: lives of colorful chameleons | Opinion
by Emilio DeGrazia
I agree to call this piece on my face “nose”. “Proboscis” makes it sound longer and is difficult to spell. “Snout” has an animal sound and “snazzola” lacks dignity.
Why call an elephant’s nose “trunk”? A trunk is the back of a car, not a suitable place for a sensitive nose.
All human noses, like fingerprints, are unique, and most are more beautiful than mine. So I’m glad to have mine lost in the crowd called “nose”. Even obnoxious people would agree that a nose is a nose is a nose.
I was confused on the first day of freshman year when Mrs. Grundman wrote my name on the blackboard and spelled it “Emil”. I looked around, wondering who “Emil” was. Years later, I was still Emil when I met Mrs. Grundman’s husband at a baseball game. “Hi, I’m Dolph,” he said. “Abbreviation for Adolph?” ” I asked. “Oh no,” he replied, “Dolph. Please just call me D.
World War II had been over for 20 years by then.
I was born in an upstairs tenancy that had a lot of chatter – mostly in the Calabrian dialect of southern Italy that no northern Italian would call “Italian”. Calabrian was my “first” language, mixed with English in its spoken and broken varieties. I learned “Italian” and “English” simultaneously, and when I entered kindergarten, Italian became a curse. I was ashamed of it, and of my mother who stammered it in grocery stores. “Emil” was my name until I met my current wife Monica. “Hi, I’m Emilio,” I announced. “How do you find me so far?” »
My Italian/English complex got complicated in college when I majored in English and minored in French and added two years of Ancient Greek, for the unnerving thrill. All languages started to be Greek for me.
So here we are, a nation of hodgepodge peoples and their various languages Tower of Babble. We have southerners who say, “I will wait for you all” and wise people who say, “Are you digging? At the gym, I was told, “That guy is mean,” and my Arab-American high school buddies were like, “I’m going to oil up anybody that confuses you.” I had to figure out that someone willing to “wait” on me wasn’t going to serve me steak and chips, that the “bad guy” was the best player in the gym, and that my Arab buddies were willing to take a firm stand for me in the street.
So here we are, a hodgepodge of individuals and tribes trying to make the United States of ourselves. We have people from Mississippi and Minnesota who have different skin tones, and newcomers, many of whom are migrants and refugees. We have overseas students, many of whom know English grammar better than our native-born university graduates. We have punks and hipsters, gays and straights, Catholics and born-agains, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Vikings, Packers and Winhawks. And we have a lot of people who don’t know what to call themselves or how to put words to things that are important to them.
We also receive hundreds of announcements every day. I remember one who kept asking me, “Would you rather have good grammar or good taste?” Good taste required smoking Winston cigarettes.
So we have a nation and its tower of Babble languages - a diverse and pluralistic society alive with dialects, foreign languages, slangs and linguistic fads, some laden with absurdity, vulgarity and bad taste.
I think we should all be better chameleons, that lizard-like creation (with a long snout) that enjoys the uncanny ability to change color with its surroundings. This is an important survival skill that many humans – and some nations – lack.
A chameleon has a basic nature, call it a biological grammatical system, which remains intact even when it changes color in the blink of an eye. As a long-time English teacher, I insist on good English grammar as a way of life. So Winston cigarettes, carcinogenic as they are, should “taste good, not like a cigarette.” It is obvious that bad grammar is not synonymous with weak intelligence or bad morals. Slang – all its varieties, from rap to TV jingles – sometimes reflects brilliant ideas, needs and creativity that boring grammatical people often lack. Regional dialects are alive with local colors capable of shedding new light on “correct” terms that have lost their flavors and spirits. A language chameleon wants both good grammar and good taste. A chameleon maintains its life and growth through its ability to adapt and diversify its identity.
Dictionaries – and grammars – are like all societies: they inevitably change, even when change, like chewing gum, an American invention, is easy to spit out and hard to swallow.
As a chameleon, I believe that slang, dialects, foreign languages, and even verbal nonsense like some poetry all play a valuable role in keeping America open and flexible. All of these languages help us adjust the relationship between the words we use and the realities they are meant to represent. We sometimes need to be confused to become more mature.
Are you digging?
If the diverse identities of “the United States” are to be united, we need a common language. We need English – to fill out forms, do business and law, and talk to strangers on the street, especially when they speak jargon we barely understand. Simple English, like “nose”, is enough for me.
But by opening ourselves up to linguistic varieties, we are also more likely to open our hearts and minds to those millions of people who care too little about good grammar and perhaps smoke too many cigarettes. Learning the “vocabulary” of a foreigner connects him to us in a special way. He invites us into their minds, and perhaps to their tables, where much good taste can be found.