Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Word Play...

I am never more reminded of why I live where I live, why I live in the Big Bad City, than when I ride the subway. Take yesterday, for example. I picked up my kiddies from school a bit early for a doctor's appointment in Manhattan. Don't ask. I have been remiss at making Well Visit appointments the year in advance necessary to get in at the Brooklyn office and camp health forms are due, so...I am forced to travel. No matter. I like the excuse to get my kids into The City from the Brooklyn burbs every so often.

We stopped at the deli for snacks and Eli had his book, Oscar the iPod I had brought along, just in case of boredom. I actually had the chance to read on the subway with my kids...Man, I love that they're getting older. I couldn't read, though, distracted by the many people and conversations all around me. One in particular stood out. How could it not? The kids were yelling across the crowded subway car at one another, joking and trying to get attention, as young punks are wont to do. As a few girls got off, one, who had stayed on, shouted at them a word that, luckily, my kids, if they'd been paying attention, would have thought was referring to a fluffy kitty cat...Of course, I knew better, was mildly shocked at the usage of it, by a girl no less. I looked around, as usual when I need to share, to see who else had been paying attention. A young girl sitting across from me met my gaze and smiled. I laughed.

"Well, I'm glad my children don't know that term yet..." I said. She laughed.

I thought about it, though, about how the subway always provides an important reality check on the way kids talk, on the words they think are okay to use. If she had checked Wikipedia, this young girl would have seen that her use of the common cat reference, her use of it as a shout out to her girlfriends, could be considered rude, or, to quote, "Most dictionaries mark the anatomical meaning as 'vulgar' or 'offensive' and its use is frowned upon in polite company."

To be fair, however, I'm sure she didn't care. Quite the opposite. But it made me think. Why was she using this term? As I watched her, plugged in to her music, her face held up high and proud, her eyes closed, pretending not to know the boy down the car who kept prodding her with false nicknames, it occurred to me: words are power. And, in many cases, when you have so little power, it is words you can turn to. They are cheap, cost nothing in fact, and by using them in a new way, in a way that shows others you will not be cowed by anything they call you, by any particular body part people might define you by, you can own what you are. Or, at the very least, pretend to in public.

I went about my business, making sure my kids' baby Goldfish didn't spill all over the subway floor. I had told them they could eat, even though it was against the rules, as long as they didn't make a mess. I am a bad mother that way, always allowing rules to be broken when I understand that my careful actions will avoid creating the problem the rule was meant to address. Oscar, at 6, always chastises me for this, like when I cross against the light, even when I see it's safe.

As I sat there, another girl got on and began to speak loudly, clearly for the benefit (or so she thought) of others, of us. Before too long, she too used that powerful P word in easy reference to a female pal. I shook my head and looked over at my friend across the aisle.

"Really?" I said. "This is why I ride the subway, to see what new words are newly popular, how they're being used..."

She laughed. I'd like to think these girls are hearkening back to the 1500s, finding it in their hearts to tap into the historical definition of the word they're using as it might have been first used, as "a term of endearment for women." I'm going to say it's that, see the cyclical nature of language as a positive, hope that the use of this term gets them somewhere good. Words can get you somewhere, I think, if used well.

I gave my new friend, the one who listened when I had to talk, a gold star as she got off the train. "Thanks!" she said, excited. I never fail to be surprised by the happy unsurprised response people have to receiving a star. It's nice to have an ally and, in this case, I took a pass on making it my kids. Eli, for one, has enough words in his current arsenal to bleep. He is like a censor, choosing the phrases most likely to be loathed by me and bleeping out the really bad ones. But there is no mistaking his meaning. I can imagine, before too long, he'll know this one that's being bandied about freely. It will enter his universe. Whether he will understand its meaning is unclear. After all, do I? Apparently not.


  1. That is a candid and very funny observation. I have never been a fan of the P-word or the C-word. I understand that some people use it as a term of power, friendliness, etc but they are yucky words to me. I love connecting with strangers in public observations. It just feels better when you have someone to share it with.

  2. With two kids in high school, I'm often surprised (shocked!) to find out just how casually they use vocabulary that I had always reserved for those moments when I hit my thumb with a hammer. Language is so much more casual for them. Not sure if that is good or bad...but it is.

  3. While I agree whole-heartedly with Googlover and Em in disliking the P- and C-words, I *really* like the idea of imagining their use in a positive light, denoting power or friendship. Just as a mental (never verbal!) exercise, to ward off rigid thinking. And grouchiness on the subway. Thanks for an entertaining and thought-provoking post!

  4. Dear Stephanie,
    I am sitting here with a smile, after reading about all the people coming into your life. Wonderful people. I send you the Biggest Gold Star that I can imagine. I smile in public and sometimes I forget I am smiling until I am puzzled that people are smiling back and then I remember. In your honor, I am going to smile at a lot of people today!