I recently saw a summer movie I loved, mostly for its language. And that language was English. “THE B F G” is a Disney movie for all ages which I recommend you see. British actor Mark Rylance plays the lead, a “Big Friendly Giant” (BFG) and his character is constantly playing with the English language in a fractured, goofy way. Seeing the film sent me to its source, the book written by Roald Dahl. As author, Dahl invented the words the B F G comes up with. Here’s a section where the B F G, after offering her something called a snozzcumber for lunch, explains to his new friend Sophie why he uses funny words:
‘Do we really have to eat it?’ Sophie said.
‘You do unless you is wanting to become so thin you will be disappearing into a thick ear.’
‘Into thin air,’ Sophie said. ‘A thick ear is something quite different.’
Once again that sad winsome look came into the B F G’s eyes. ‘Words,’ he said, ‘is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life. So you must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling. As I am telling you before, I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.’
‘That happens to everyone,’ Sophie said.
‘Not like it happens to me,’ the B F G said. ‘I is speaking the most terrible wigglish.’
‘I think you speak beautifully,’ Sophie said.
‘You do?” cried the B F G, suddenly brightening. ‘You really do?’
‘Simply beautifully,’ Sophie repeated.
‘Well, that is the nicest present anybody is ever giving me in my whole life!’ cried the B F G. ‘Are you sure you is not twiddling my leg?’
‘Of course not,” Sophie said. ‘I just love the way you talk.’
‘How wondercrump!’ cried the B F G, still beaming. ‘How whoopsey-splunkers! How absolutely squiffling! I is all of a stutter.’
Using Funny Words
BFG makes a conversation fun, doesn’t he? Throwing in a twisted word is like a quick little tickle to his friend Sophie and she finds it beautiful. To the reader, it comes off like a surprise slap to the brain’s funny bone. You look at the word longer while trying to decipher its meaning.
When you add something wondercrumpish like the B F G does to his sentences, you are being more playful with the language. Children do this all the time, inventing words by mistake. (This is part of the appeal of author Roald Dahl who makes it fun for young readers with his funny characters.)
When you try it in conversation, it can be a witty wake-up call telling your companions, “Here’s something different. Listen to THIS!”
Next time you’re out a a restaurant, order the “ankle steak.” Whaaa? Sounds like something from a very different part of the cow don’t it? Or how about trying the “Macabre Salad” instead of a Cobb Salad? Watch children squirm with delight. Does that mean you want a dark and scary salad? Not really, it’s a learning moment, to teach the meaning of the word macabre.
When you play with words while conversing, you get into the moment. When you toss in a goofy word, you change the moment. The listener has to stop and think about the sentence. Maybe ask a question about the word. Soon the teaching work blends together with play beautifully. (Ah, such a secret engagement!)
Making such a play in your conversation makes room enough so that ensuing conversation can become as big as your subject, big as your imagination. When you invent and explore this way, you will find interesting people interested in playing with you, too. I guarantee ya!
Quick example: the original title for this blog was “PLEASED TO MEET ME.” It is not only the title of a Replacements rock-and-roll record * — but it twists (a BFG squiff-squiggle?) around the words you would normally expect, which are: “Pleased to meet you.” Whatever does that mean? “Pleased to meet me.” I see it as a folk journalist’s attempt to engage with a subject on such a new, enlightening, or surprising level, they were glad you happened to come along!
I once began a radio report, about L.A. high schoolers being forced by the “No Child Left Behind” law to sign up for the draft, this way: “In our local high schools, the student opt-out rate is soaring.” Here I was playing on, “drop out rate.” Journalists do this all the time, trying to “capture the ear” and make the listener listen more closely to the sentence.
So just as playing with other people back-and-forth brings a folk journalist his greatest pleasure, you too can turn into a merry mythemagician the next time you find yourself cruising the old conversation station for a cuppa chit chat. Add to the mix that extra brew ‘yo, you’ll find your references soon a-flying like postmodern posts, leaving you and your partner laughing it off and changing your world one conversation at a time!
Check out these Word Smithies:
“Words are the world we live in. Locution Locution Locution.” Wittgenstein
Groucho Marx once said, about to go up as the elevator door closed, “Men’s tonsils, please.” **
Modern Hebrew is like Elizabethan English. Its a marvelous instrument. I’ve even been able to invent new words where none existed before by joining certain words. Amos Oz
The Firesign Theatre, perhaps the greatest American comedy group, has nothing but fun with the English language: “It’s hotter than a heater in hell’s mouth in King’s Nose, Pennsylvania.” For even funnier and more accurately quoted big funny goodies from them, checkout: www.firesigntheatre.com/
And speaking of funny conversationalists, enjoy the master (referenced above in an elevator):
‘Giants is never dying,’ the B F G answered. ‘Sometimes and quite suddenly, a giant is disappearing and nobody is ever knowing where he goes to. But mostly us giants is simply going on and on like whiffsy time-twiddlers.’
How do you make conversation at the border? With those super-serious federal agents on the line between Mexico and the U.S.?
Recently I crossed the border and came right back again. I’m no coyote; I was the boyfriend. Aviva is an Israeli and I was helping her get a new visa. She was required to leave the country every six months to get a new visa in order to come back for six more. During those six months, she did grad school experiments at UCLA. Brilliant woman.
To make it more than just a quick turnaround, we drove down to Rosarito Beach for a romantic weekend. I love Mexico and showed Aviva where Americans go to retire in cliff houses that cost less than $100,000, while the same would be $4 million in El Norte. Having trekked through India and Tibet, Aviva said to her Rosarito, “looks like Gaza.”
Oh well. Lots of sand I guess.
After all day at the Tijuana consulate, processing her visa, we drank celebratory smoothies, got some jicama to take back to my mother and bought seashell necklaces because beautiful little children broke our hearts selling them to us.
After another day down there, we drove back north, sitting for an hour before getting back into the good ol’ USA. But first we were greeted by an American officer in green fatigues at the welcome-back booth. And here’s a fine how-do-you-do: after glancing at our passports, he slapped an orange sticker onto my windshield and only said with a single wave of his hand, “The brown building over there.”
Secondary Inspection Area.
Suddenly a blue-clad officer-slash-agent came out of the brown building and appeared at the passenger window, speaking Hebrew.
So that’s how to converse with a border guard: Speak their language! (Not me, but Aviva sure could.)
Somehow we’d found the Border Patrol’s “Middle East expert.” A friendly young agent named Kohn. Kohn said Aviva was the second Israeli he helped today. (Or delayed, depending on how you look at it.)
“You know, it would take a lot longer if you didn’t get me,” Kohn bragged. “I’m your one-man homeland security.” I’m thinking, hey, this is the busiest border crossing in the world. Why not just try and have an enjoyable conversation?
Israel, said Kohn, “is a special interest country.” That meant — he told Aviva he was really sorry– he had to “treat her this way, like all the Arab countries.”
(Later, on that U.S. Customs Comment Card where you evaluated whether “the officer was: patient/courteous/careful/abused his authority/rude/or unprofessional,” Aviva could add: “Apologetic.”)
There is a convincing swagger to these agents. I heard a another guard nearby demanding, “Papeles!” These are busy, no-nonsense individuals. Our agent Kohn looked like he could easily toss my Toyota back over the border. In fact, he busted people while we waited: two guys with tattoos and an American flag on the back of their California pickup.
“Smuggling previous deports,” Kohn informed us as we watched them being led away. He meant they were a coyote and a rider.
Turns out, Aviva needed an “I-94” form. That’s what Kohn said, reading her passport. A visa says you are allowed to enter the United States and the I-94 reports when you entered.
He noticed something else on her passport and asked her: “Why were you in Jordan?”
It was 1997, she told him. Every Israeli went to visit Jordan. It was okay to do that then.
He wanted to know what she did at the university.
“All it takes is a little vial,” he warned. “It could kill a lot of people.”
But Aviva looks like Aviva so he kept smiling. Kohn told us he didn’t like Mexico. Then he told us why: “They say there’s a hundred thousand dollars on our heads. Every one of us who works here.”
Suddenly his shift was over and he had to go grab another agent to run Aviva’s parents’ names though the database. We sat another 40 minutes, observing two playful “explosive detection canines” being petted by a few officers. Such comical pups!
We saw Mexicans walking by with their hands behind their backs. We saw a plastic bag of pot as big as a bed pillow. Confiscation is an impressive thing — unless it’s being done to you. I worried they’d find my hunk of jicama. Or the generic Viagra I purchased in one of the many Tijuana farmacias — “Que es disfuncion erectile?” — for my buddies back in Los Angeles.
“This is unbelievable,” said Aviva as one bust after another went down around us. “Look, he goes to a car,” she pointed to a sniffing spaniel.
“Dogs always go to cars,” I said, hot and tired after two hours now.
After Aviva’s parents check out on the computer, she paid $6 for the I-94. (The visa was $104, about a thousand pesos) Soon we were driving in California. I told her how I really didn’t believe in borders. We should be free citizens, like that philosopher whatsisname wrote, “students of the world with no princes over us.”
“You have many ideas,” Aviva said. “Why don’t you run for president?”
I thought of Trump and the big border wall he wants to build. Aviva said she wants me to take her to Canada to do this next time.
150 miles later, we reach home with the visa and smuggled jicama.
Want to be among the great conversationalists of the 21st century?
How about the 22nd?
You can get a head start by getting out there and mixing it up. By using your head.
So get out there and convert somebody— I mean converse with somebody!
Now go on, this time I really mean it!
And you can be a good listener, too.
Great conversationalists listen more than talk.
The Art of Conversation A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, Catherin Blythe, Gotham Books, 2009
My best conversations inevitably and invariably veer to warm giving and taking talk about matters of the heart.
In other words, for best results, take talking time with a friend.
A friend can be a member of your family, too. Or somebody you meet at a bus stop, if you take the time to get to know them.
Talk about what you love. Notice how it seems to inspire you to talk about all that other stuff.
It can begin anywhere, anytime. My sisters Nancy and Jill loved talking about music they dug, sitting in their bedroom playing records for friends who came over after school. My brother Jimmie and I talked more about comic books and sports with our pals. Games, names and the numbers on the back of uniforms.
Later of course we got into which kid or teacher was disgusted by us, and all the other things that disgusted us— as so much of it so often did…
See how technology tries to separate us into our own worlds, at the same time claiming to bring us closer together?
It changes our own words. We may still have intimate times together laughing, crying, whispering about ourselves and other people. We’ll still talk on the food, the weather, books and movies and sex and what the landscape looks like, what games, podcasts or links to sites we go to or went to.
But, I wonder, does this kind of conversation go on anymore: The one with Shel or Stober or Steve Finkel and me skipping class to skip, gallop, tear on bikes over to Milton’s Drugs on Six Mile Road. Or to DeMott’s Drugs on Seven Mile? To sit at the counter drinking 12 cent chocolate cokes, grabbing a plastic bag of pork rinds to go. And one block closer to Woodward Avenue, the main drag, was Share’s Pharmacy –“Share treats you fair” it said on the window. On the corner there was a Biff’s, Nancy’s favorite place to skip out too, for burgers.
Where were those conversations for you? What did you talk about with your friends? Didn’t the city feel full of talking with your pals?
Hey look! It’s a whole new play about conversation! That’s gotta be a good sign.
Meanwhile, why are the conversations that took place back then the ones we can never remember when we get older?
Were we too busy throwing snowballs at passing cars to comment about it? (Today we’d have a page to comment on about it!)
Did you know that J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye is all about conversations? Holden Caulfield has more than two dozen of them. Conversations come up everywhere he goes in the book. He even comments on what kind of conversation he’s having. What kind they are or were, looking back at them, or even right now during them! He comments on how the conversation is going — one was a lousy conversation, another a witty conversation. Holden has brief and long conversations, “goddam boring” ones and “slightly intellectual” ones, too.
And at the end, after all these attempts to communicate, Holden is left in a pool of tears. Your heart really goes out to him. I recommend this book to all lovers of conversation. And everybody else.
When my father was in college, he and his friends conducted “bull sessions.” That was in the 1940s. By the 70s and 80s, it was sitting up all night in the dormitory rapping. Shooting the shit. Sometimes Bob and Mike, Jerry, Byron, Ted or Kent and I kept on talking until we ended up trucking down to Main Street in Middletown to O’Rourke’s diner for its famous steamed cheeseburgers and eggs.
Walking and talking the whole way there and back.
After all, where can you hear cooler things than from your friends?
Sitting on the floor and talking till dawn
Candles and confidences
Trading old beliefs and humming old songs
And lowering old defenses
“Love Song” in the musical Pippin
One time I discovered that if I stayed up all night? I would learn something. Like staying open to experience.
Hey, I’m just trying to stay open 24/7 here! I’m a one-stop talk shop. One of my college roommates Jeff always put it this way: “The people are the greatest.”
What did he mean? I think that as close as you want to get to another person, you are left finally knowing that there is always more to learn about them.
The mystery in that.
Does it ever end?
Not as long as we keep talking to each other.
So where are you going next?
What will your conversation look like today?
Two friends having coffee together/when something flies by their window
“Hypnotized” by Fleetwood Mac
A tavola non s’inveccchia “When dining at the table with family and friends, one does not grow old.”
A toast from the founder of Riunite, Harry Mariani, from his obituary, NY TIMES Jan 11 2016
The fear is the basic condition, and there are all kinds of reasons for why we’re so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, is that, is that the job we’re here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time.
David Foster Wallace
I’m not fearless. But I will try and talk to anyone. Even a rock:
See the large boulder above my head? This is your intrepid folk journalist covering breaking news: part of an embankment is crashing down onto the Pacific Coast Highway north of Malibu, California.
I interviewed stuck drivers, highway repair people. Later I interviewed the rock.
Heck, I’ll interview anyone.
(with Sigmund Freud)
But a folk journalist mostly prefers talking to real folks. Good folks like you and you and you too out there. (A publisher saw me do it in a restaurant and suggested I write a book about it called, “PLEASED TO MEET ME.” That’s taken from the title of an lp by the band The Replacements.)
My niece noticed how I draw conversation out of her three year-old. She says I should hire myself out as a Kid Whisperer.
You know, borrow children from their parents and bring them back more conversant.
Is there a market for such a skill?
And how does kid whispering work?
When the toddler describes an action he recently took — he went to the playground, had pizza, or a bowel movement, etc — I follow with:
“And then what happened?”
“And then what?”
“What happened next?”
If he describes the picture on the page of the children’s book he’s reading, I’ll say: “Go on!”
When I do this, I’m imitating my grandmother, Adeline Krasnick of blessed memory, a great conversationalist known to all as Nana. Nana always seemed so interested in what we had to tell her. “Go on!” is sort of like saying, “You don’t say,” which Nana also said frequently. (Funny how saying you don’t say actually stimulates conversing.)
And sometimes, my three year-old grandnephew will go on and tell me more.
Here I am about to do some kid whispering with him:
Every difficult conversation, starts with a sentence.
As seen on VEEP, an HBO show, April 24 2016
My friend Stu sent me the following vimeo. In it, his son Zachary is trying to get his convo on with a member of the opposite sex. Short and sweet and to the point about those feelings you feel under pressure to be yourself in a youthful one-to-one: