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Bee's knees and cat's whiskers.

Miss Doherty's assignment to her sophomore section of English at Richmond Hill High School was to write a single-page essay on "My Favorite Books." My response, back in 1960, was to award the palm to Heinrich Harrer's My Seven Years in Tibet, the book I had most recently read; mild approbation to Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles and mysteries in general; and short shrift to the entire genre of military books, which I said I just "couldn't stand." Miss Doherty indulged my opinions and kindly graded the essay at 90, but noted in the margin that my chatty remark that had meant to tar-brush everyone from Martial to Marshall was "colloq." (colloquial), and thus deficient. By way of explanation after returning the paper to me, she added that good writing was "elevated speech."

For decades I had displayed that naive and, frankly, not so hot (colloq.) essay in a frame on the wall of my study to chasten me and to hearten others who might pause to read it. Today it resides in a box in storage, and I have come to like Miss Doherty less well than I did when I was her pupil in 1960. Only in recent years have I realized the lasting impact of her offhand observation that good writing is somehow more formal, more structured, more dignified than good talk. I became an English major in college and wrote stiff and stuffy, if well received, papers. I became a professional writer of sports history books, differing from my peers in that my prose seemed professorial and chilly, where theirs was often imprecise yet energetic.

Well, folks, Miss Doherty was wrong--it turns out that the best writing is closest to the best talk, if not the same damn thing. I could have learned this from Mark Twain, from Joseph Mitchell, from H. L. Mencken, from Walt Whitman, and from countless others who often turned fancy phrases, but never abandoned their unique voices. But for the longest time, I somehow thought that it was a delicious subtlety for an author to throw his voice across the room like a ventriloquist. When I would toss a colloquial or slang term into an archly constructed sentence, my purpose was to jar, to amuse, and then to return, invigorated, to an expository manner.

Lately I have begun to come around, and it is my prolific e-mail habit that I have to thank. Writing speedily and often thoughtlessly, I have neatly bypassed Miss Doherty's censors--and more importantly, my own--and defaulted to my own voice, my own ear, and my own love of words once all the rage, but now quaint: swell (first appearance in print, 1897), crummy (1859), nifty (1868), jerk (1935), groovy (1941).

The power of patois is that it comes from the bottom up, without social sanction, often from special-interest subcultures (surfers, techies, druggies) or ethnic or sexual minorities, and always with an amusedly slant stance toward majority culture. Most of it vanishes rapidly--indeed, so rapidly that even a generation later we are left to wonder what the catch-phrase meant in the first place. The derivation of off-color terminology was particularly amusing to trace when I was a schoolboy, and my enduring interest in such sleuthing is one of the many ways in which I have proudly arrested my development.

Other men may lust after Maseratis, iPads, and trophy wives; I have my microfilm reader, my Harry Potter magnifying glass, and my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. For me adventure is at all times but a step away. Although I am a nerd (1957; probable origin, a character in a Dr. Seuss book of seven years earlier, If I Ran the Zoo), I am not singular in such pursuits. I have a good many friends who would proudly describe themselves as geeks (1875!). One, Priscilla Astifan of Rochester, wrote to me about baseball's nautical terms (on deck, in the hold, around the horn), saying, "It's fascinating the way old references prevail even when the associations that initiated them are long gone"--a fine observation. I love these archaisms or vestiges, too. It's downright hilarious that sportswriters today will write, "Beckett was knocked out of the box," or "New York notched three runs in its half of the inning." Not a mother's son of them seems aware that we haven't had a pitcher's box since 1892, and we haven't counted runs by scoring notches into a stick since the 1840s.

Peter Morris convinced me that his explanation for the derivation of the baseball word fan was correct: that the term was originally used in derision, as an insiders' (players, managers, owners) dismissal of outsider wannabes (rather recent, 1988). The idea of ceaseless tongue-flapping being a metaphorical fan seems right, and the controversy of fanatic versus fancy as the word's source seems contrived and incongruent with the class character of the baseball set. Imagine looking upon a crowd of several thousand people all fanning themselves: might you not refer to the congregants themselves as fans? Or maybe the name comes from the incessant chatter and debate by which true baseball devotees are known.

In a similar example of synecdoche, in which the name of the part is transferred to the whole, today a visibly athletic male (or oddly and increasingly, and no longer disparagingly, a female) is termed a jock. This word derives not from a horse jockey, but from the jock strap worn to support the male genitalia in active sport. Okay--but where does "jock strap" come from? Not from the racetrack, I suggest, but from Jacques Strop, a supporting character in Robert Macaire, an obscure 1830s play by Benjamin Antier. Ya heard it here first.

John Thorn is the author and editor of many books, including New York400 (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2009). He lives in Saugerties, New York. Copyright [c] John Thorn.
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Author:Thorn, John
Publication:Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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