If you thought from the song that this post was going to be about music, the lost art of letter writing or the post office I’m sorry to disillusion you. I just happen to like the song, haven’t heard it in years and when it suddenly came to mind it provided the inspiration for what is to follow. Today we’re going to talk about letters – those little funny symbols which are the building blocks of our language and which you are currently reading. I know that all those who stop by here can read since I seldom include pictures in these posts.
But let’s get down to business.
One day I was perfectly happy, sitting at home when my parents announced that I was going to be going to something called school. Heck, I was barely potty trained and still had to make occasional mad rushes to the bathroom hoping that I could loosen my belt in time. I’m pleased to report that I was successful at this endeavor – usually.
Anyway, my parents explained that school was a place where you learned things and met new friends. Sounded good to me. So I went.
Well, sure as the sun rises in the east, I found myself in school with a bunch of kids I had never seen before and a lady who introduced herself as Mrs. Scott. She was going to be our teacher for the entire school year. She seemed very grandmotherly with her beautifully coiffed grey hair, but at this point my greatest concern was knowing where the bathroom was – because of those occasional accidents, don’t you know?
As luck would have it, our classroom was as far from the bathroom on our floor as it possibly could be. So I planned on making sure that if even the slightest urges started to overtake me, I would ask for permission to go and if I had to sit on the potty for a half hour before something happened, at least I would avoid the ignominy of messing myself.
Anyway, we were all assigned to a particular desk which stood on a metal base to which both the desk and our seat were attached and which had a wooden top that opened so that we had a place within the desk to keep our school supplies. Those consisted of a pad of very yellow lined paper that felt coarse to the touch and had chunks of wood pulp stuck in it and a couple of the biggest pencils that you had ever seen – or at least the biggest that I had ever seen. I mean seriously, they were so large that when I found out that I was supposed to make marks on the yellow paper with them, I had to hoist the end with the eraser so that it rested on my shoulder in order to maneuver it. Well, I was a small kid.
Of course, it never occurred to me that there were no warning labels on the pencils that we should not eat them as it might result in lead poisoning. In fact, in those days, I’m not sure if we had warning labels on anything – and somehow most of us made it through. But as I later found out, there was probably no reason for such a notification as most of the kids who got lead poisoning did so by eating the paint from the walls of their apartments.
Above our blackboard were individual pieces of heavy paper on which were written something I found out were called letters. They came in two versions – big and not so big. Learning these was one of our first orders of business – and Mrs. Scott led us in the familiar jingle that begins, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G …” – well if you’re over forty you know the rest and I won’t bore you with it. If you’re under forty you can google it. Mrs. Scott always began our recitation with the letter “A”. We were a very conservative school. It never crossed my mind that doing so somehow diminished the value of L,G B T or Q by making them take a back seat, not to mention the other twenty letters.
But as I’ve learned that we must be sensitive to and respectful of all things (letters being a sub-set of all things), I’ve written to my school and suggested that they have an annual random drawing to determine which letter should be first, which second, etc. during that particular school year. That way every letter has an equal opportunity to shine. I have a set of missives going out to the publishers of dictionaries with the suggestion that they list words in their books in the same way.
Anyway, to get back to our subject, I learned that when you put certain letters together in a certain order they could form something called words. Of course, if you just combined them willy-nilly you might accidentally get words but were more likely to get gobbledygook. As I mentioned earlier we were a very conservative school so at age five they weren’t teaching us sex education – or even that there was a sexual tension that existed between letters. That’s something that I had to figure out on my own. And for those of you who have missed it, this is your lucky day.
Take the letters “K” and “R”. They sometimes have a very intimate, nuzzling relationship standing strong together against the world. But they also have a sort of Dominator/Submissive relationship as well. Fortunately, they have found a way to work out their relationship without having to resort to a court of law and both of them share the opportunity to be in a position of control.
Think about it. “K” and “R” can be together in that order to start a word, “Kruller” comes to mind. But they cannot end a word in that same order. On the other hand, “R” and “K” can end a word in that order, as in “Landmark” but can never begin a word in that position. What a perfect example of harmony and mutual respect.
Mrs. Scott informed us that some of the letters were called “Vowels” and others were called “Consonants”. There were five vowels and twenty-one consonants – except that “Y” sometimes was a vowel and sometimes was a consonant. I guess in today’s parlance one could say that “Y” was a transgendered letter depending on its mood. This would have been useful information because if I had known about all this I would certainly have done a thorough investigation of any “Y’s” I brought along with me as I sat straining on the potty for a half hour.
Now there are some letters which are so strong and powerful that their mere presence at the beginning of a word makes that word so sacrosanct that we cannot even speak its full name but call if by its first letter. The “N” word, the “F” word and the “B” word are examples. This, of course, is a recent improvement to the language brought about through the creation of “emojis” which came into being so that people with limited vocabularies could communicate with other people with limited vocabularies and do so by using a total stranger’s idea of how they should convey their feelings.
This movement towards condensation has been going on for some time. It’s at least a half century that we began referring to more and more things by acronyms or initials although there seems to have been a geometric increase in the numbers of such things which occur in our speech. Perhaps that’s a function of convenience although my personal belief is that trend has been far more influenced by the lack of ability on the part of much of our population to spell words correctly. To them, should the publishers of dictionaries follow my suggestion, it will make very little difference.
So what does all this have to do with the 2016 election. (If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you knew we would get to that).
Most of us are aware of the rise of a radical, hateful and otherwise despicable group of people who have called themselves by three separate sets of letters during their brief existence: IS, ISIL, ISIS. Those translate into “Islamic State”; “Islamic State in the Levant”; “Islamic State in Syria.”
Republicans regularly refer to their version of dismembering and murdering people as “Radical Islamic extremism”. Democrats including President Obama and front runner candidate Ms. Hillary Clinton refer to them merely as “Radical extremists”. The Democrats argue that by using the word “Islamic” to describe these bastards we somehow will be offending the vast majority of Muslims who are as horrified as the rest of the world at their activities. But wait a minute Madam Secretary Dunderbutt.
How can you possibly offend (not that we should really be too concerned for that as the basis for establishing a policy on how to combat these people) when they describe themselves using the very word you seek to avoid using at all costs?
Well, it’s late, I’m tired and I think I’ve pretty much exhausted my entire knowledge of letters. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll attack numbers. But then again, maybe not. Check back to see what’s in store. And remember on this blog, “What you see is what you get.”
That’s probably why I’ve never considered running for public office.