Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Great and Beloved

The English language in general is noted for its versatility, suppleness, and facility of expression, and the same can be said in particular for one highly offensive four-letter word which, unfortunately, is a much-used component of our lexicon. I assume my reader knows which word I refer to here, but if not, you are going to have to solve that little mystery on your own, as I am not about to publish it here. Fact is, I haven't used the word in question since I was about sixteen years old, except for once when I had to use it while interpreting in a courtroom, where interpreter ethics required using the same register in rendering a word or expression from the source language -- in this case, Spanish -- into the target language. But even during my adolescence, when I was able to use it more or less freely, I never liked the word, nor did I ever really feel comfortable using it. Simply put, vulgarity is something that has never come naturally or easily to me.

My brief Army hitch started with basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, which in the Army is nicknamed Ft. Lost-in-the-Woods, although I preferred to call it Four-Letter Word. It's such a shame that my own preferred nickname never caught on, since it would have fit like a plug. During my second night of Basic, I listened in on a barracks conversation between two other trainees double-bunked next to me, and I decided to count the number of times they used this word, or some variation thereof, in a single minute. I counted 17. The word has never ceased to amaze me, with its usefulness as an adjective, adverb, pronoun, conjunction, verb, or just about any other part of speech one can think of; and these bunkmates did a superb job of demonstrating its usefulness, in the process making me almost feel ashamed that I was so repelled by the mere thought of using it myself. By the time I was out of the Army, I entertained fantasies about everyone from the Chief of Staff to the lowliest buck private suddenly forgetting the word entirely; but then I realized that if this were to happen, military communication would break down completely, with potentially dire ramifications for our national security. So I contented myself instead by referring to it, in letters and conversations with friends, as "The Great and Beloved," and by musing that I was surely destined to have a supremely happy marriage, if only I could find a woman I could love as much as the average GI loved that word.

With that as background, my current reading material includes Helmet for My Pillow, Robert Leckie's prose-poem memoir about his experiences as a Marine infantryman in the Pacific theater during World War II. (I had known about the book since I was about 12 years of age, but was prompted to read it now because I am watching the HBO miniseries, "The Pacific," which is partly based on Leckie's memoir.) The author included in his book a lyrical description of The Great and Beloved, which almost makes one want to go to a mall or church or some other public place and shout it at the top of his or her lungs; and I include the passage here, partly motivated by the spirit of jealousy, as I do wish so fervently that I had written it myself:

"Always there was the word. Always there was that four-letter ugly sound that men in uniform have expanded into the single substance of the linguistic world. It was a handle, a hyphen, a hyperbole; verb, noun, modifier; yes, even conjunction. It described food, fatigue, metaphysics. It stood for everything and meant nothing; an insulting word, it was never used to insult; crudely descriptive of the sexual act, it was never meant to describe it; base, it meant the best; ugly, it modified beauty; it was the name and nomenclature of the voice of emptiness, but one heard it from chaplains and captains, from PFCs and Ph.D.'s -- until, finally, one could only surmise that if a visitor unacquainted with English were to overhear our conversations he would, in the way of the Higher Criticism, demonstrate by measurement and numerical incidence that this little word must assuredly be the thing for which we were fighting."

For beating me to the draw and expressing so masterfully something I have always wanted to say myself, and in the spirit of The Great and Beloved, as well as the jealousy he has provoked in me, I can only say one thing: