Chuffed with the sheer pleasure of words 

As far as cheap thrills go, I’d rank words -- the way they’re spoken, twisted or manipulated -- right up there with a good custard pie or egg salad sandwich any day.

I’m constantly amazed how quickly new expressions can weasel their way into our speech patterns, sometimes when you least expect it.

Just out of the blue the other say I turned to someone and said, “I am totally chuffed at the way my garlic is starting to pop up in the garden.”

Chuffed? You know, satisfied, pleased, delighted. Chuffed.

I got this word from an English artist/gardener, Julia Barton, who earlier this year transformed the old jail in an installation for SCAD. Of course anything a Brit says sounds erudite, doesn’t it?

I learned this as a reporter when, chuffed from an interview with someone from the British Isles, I’d sit down to write the story, review my notes and realize they hadn’t said anything particularly brilliant. It was the sound of the language that was brilliant.

Take note, though. “Chuff,” as in to pass gas, is something entirely different from chuffed.

Another favorite of Barton’s was the word “crack,” and she wasn’t speaking of the cocaine derivative.

“We had a really good crack last night at the pub,” she offered as an example. A good laugh. A good feeling. I don’t think you always need the article, either. So you might be able to say, “We had good crack,” and still be within the bounds of good grammar (and the law to boot).

“Knackered” is another one of her words. It means worn out (and not necessarily from sex). “I was totally knackered after trying to explain the project to the scaffolding people,” Julia said more than once, followed by, “They just ask as if they don’t give a toss.”

Toss is easy to extrapolate from the sentence. So is “jot,” as in, “She’s not helping a jot.”

“Nick” takes a little work. “The shoes look to be in good nick,” could go many different directions, but she means in good shape.

Same with “Skip,” particularly amusing to our American ear. No matter how often Julia said it, we still giggle thinking of skip as the Dumpster.

Same with jumper, as in, “Better wear your jumper, girls. It’s going to get chilly tonight.” We knew she meant sweater but it still took time to compute.

“Torch” -- for flashlight -- is also easy to figure out from context (“We need a torch to get back to the car”) and just as easy to start using.

So is African-American patois. After all, you hear something often enough, it begins to sound correct no many how rules of grammar it egregiously violates. Most of the new forms center around the verb form, which is often placed at the end of the sentence or eliminated altogether.

These days when I say things like, “Why you don’t call me?” (switching the “don’t” and the “you”) or “How you know my name?” (leaving out the “do” altogether) or “When you going to come over” (who needs the “are”?), I don’t give it two thoughts.

Terrible? I suppose. We need that auxiliary verb. Or do we? Frankly it’s beginning to sound right without it. More than sound right -- there’s a certain pleasure in forming the words that way.

I’m also starting, I notice, to leave out the apostrophe, which is not so bad on paper since it’s so hard to remember when to use it anyway. Speaking is another issue.

When talking about someone who passed away, I’ll say, more as a joke than anything, “He dead.” Now I hear myself saying, “I’m going over to Tom house” and “Where my keys at, anyway?” And, of course, the universal, “What up?”

As we hear from people trying to learn English, it’s not easy, mainly because so many words sound alike.

The other day in a library up North, I asked about information on Wales. Instead I got 119 entries on whales.

That same trip to the old folk’s home visiting my mother I ran into Trudy, a woman I’ve come to know quite well. The first thing she said to me -- and the way I heard it -- was, “I’ve got AIDS.”

AIDS? Trudy? In the old folk’s home? Huh? What’s going on in this place?

“Oh, that’s horrible,” I said.

“Well, it’s not so bad,” she answered. “I only need them to help me get dressed in the morning and into bed at night.”

She meant aides with an “e,” a much better kind. When I told her what I thought she meant, we had a good crack.


E-mail Jane at gofish5@earthlink.net


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Jane Fishman

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