December 23, 2007
Originally published June 4, 2006
I've always liked to write, but I also always suffered from a curse that I believe is common for English-language users. I can't spell worth a damn.
Usually, I can explain away a mangled, misspelled word by calling it a typo, but I ain't foolin' myself when I do that. I'm just trying to fool YOU.
I learned all the "rules" of grammar and spelling back when I was still in elementary school. But as I grew older and I tried to PRACTICE those rules, I realized just how ridiculous they are. "'I' before 'E,' except after 'C.'" Right.
Betcha a dollar that I can show you a couple of "exceptions" to that rule, which is another got-dam thing I never understood about English or English teachers: "The exception proves the rule." What kind of happy horseshit is THAT??? In MY humble opinion, any rule with that many exceptions ain't a farooking RULE. It's a "suggestion," and one that may frequently be WRONG.
I've said before that writing, for someone who likes to write, isn't so much a creative exercise as it is a display of craftsmanship, much like a skilled carpenter building a house. The carpenter has the right tools and he knows how to use them. Give him a stack of lumber, a few boxes of nails and a building permit, and he'll MAKE a house out of it.
Writing isn't much different, except for the fact that it's one hell of a lot easier to cut a 2" X 4" piece of wood into proper lengths with a circular saw than it is to string a lot of words together and have them all match up when you're finished. Plus, I can build something out of wood and tell by looking at it when it's finished whether I did a good job or not.
I can't do the same when I write. I may think that I got all the angles precise, ran all the pipes plumb and wired it flawlessly, but I never know for sure until somebody else opens the front door, flips a light switch and flushes the commode a few times. For all I know, the door isn't on its hinges, the lights aren't on and there's an elephant trying to give birth in a screaming toilet.
Strange, but true. I can LOOK at a piece of wood and tell whether it's any good or not. One that's nice and smooth, with a straight grain and no ugly knots in it OBVIOUSLY is better for a building project than that warped, knotty, gap-cut, splinter-encrusted piece of shit right next to it on the shelf at Home Depot. When an 8' length costs the same price for either one, which are YOU gonna buy?
I may fuck up that board when I get back home and begin sawing and driving nails into it, but at least I started with the right raw material. Set out with that warped, knotty sucker and how well you can use a tape measure, how well you can operate a saw, or how straight you can drive a nail doesn't matter. You were doomed from the beginning.
Words are like those lengths of wood in Home Depot. When you want to build something pretty, use the good stuff. Buy smart. Cut straight. But if you have no higher ambition than to slap up an outhouse in the back yard and let rampaging kudzu vines cover it up so that you never have to paint it, who cares what kind of wood you use? That ain't important.
Good wordsmiths can tell the difference and they chose wood from the shelf depending on what it's going to be used for when the building begins. If they want pretty, they build pretty, using pretty wood. But ugly also has its place in this world. A rose is a rose and it oughta look like one... but an outhouse is an outhouse and it should LOOK like one, too.
The English language ain't the straightest nail a carpenter ever tried to hammer into a good piece of wood. Don't get me wrong--- I believe that the language is beautiful, and it lends itself wonderfully to melodious poetry, descriptive writing and poignant song lyrics. But damn if it isn't an unweildy tool sometimes, especially with the odd spelling.
(My daddy always told me that I would never find a better dog than an ugly mutt. "Mutts KNOW they're ugly. They'll eat anything, and they're just grateful to have a home. Be good to one and it'll be the best friend you ever had."
He said that once at the kitchen table when he was feeling all philosophical after he came home from work and quaffed a big glass of Jim Beam and water. Mama was cooking supper and I couldn't resist my feral impulses. I knew that she heard what he said, so I asked, "Hey, Mama! Is that why Daddy married YOU? You were a mutt, needin' a good home?"
She flicked a piece of biscuit dough at me. "Yeah, that's right. Your daddy was a bastard who married a mutt. Whaddya you think that makes YOU?"
No wonder I turned out so warped, growing up in a home like that.)
But, I digress. The problem with English is that... it IS a MUTT!!! It's got Germanic roots, all tangled in Romantic sub-roots, mixed up with slang and idioms that vary from coast to coast in the same country, confusing regional accents and Gawd only knows what else thrown in, with acronyms and hip-talk seasoning the gumbo. And it keeps evolving (or mutating) every year.
I'm doing the best I can just to SPEAK English anymore. Don't expect me to spell it, too.
All content © Rob Smith