Phineas McVey shuffled past the porch early this mornin'. He tipped his Panama as he glanced up the steps an seen me sippin' cawfee an' listenin' to the birds. I noted how he carried a thick volume under his arm. But he said nary a word -' jes' smiled an' blended into the dappled shadows as he moved along tree lined road.
Directly I went inside to check what sort of sweet morsel I might offer when he passed this way again in a half hour. Thar' was a slice of carrot cake left from yesterday's book club meetin' that Mrs. Chatham sent home fer Uncle --but that he ain't et yet. An' not much else. Reckon I'se been amiss in housewifery since Granny went to ailing.
Phineas retired from collich professorin' two years back. I worry that he doan have enough intellekshul opportunites down heah in Crackerville. He say thar's always somethin' to learn from ever'body, iffin' youse willin' to invest the effort. Recently he has taken to amblin' past the porch goin one way, an' iffin' I'se home an' still sittin' out thar half hour later when he comes t'other way, why t hen he knows I'se not too busy fer him sit a spell.
"Cawfee or grapefruit juice," I as't, as he made his way up the steps to the porch.
"Well, my dear, I suppose it is too early in the day for a glass of Sherry?" His eyes shone with that special mirth that fellas of a certain age git when they's thinkin' how naughty they's bein'.
After I trickled a spot Sherry of in mah finest crystal thimble an' laid out dish of ripe cherries
( in case Uncle had his heart set on that the carrot cake) wif a linen napkin, settled back into mah own chair, I as't, "What is the large book you have wif' ya' today, Phineas?"
I look forward to our conversations. His charm never fails to cause me to fuss over this ole gent a bit.
"Fowler's Modern English Usage. I'm sure you are familiar with it?"
"Yessir," I replied, " but only by reputation. I'se shure that after you tell me about it I'll need to hunt one up."
"You may find one on Amazon, used, for just a few dollars," he advised.
"Well..I usually git new books. Used ones had people's hands on 'em."
Phineas's eyebrow wandered upward. He peered at me over the Sherry, "My hands have been on this book. That makes it used, does it not?"
"Uh-huh, but I know yore hands, Sir. Ain't sayin' I never git used books--some titles only come that way. But ..."
His hand held the book aloft then it settled again. He opened the book on his knees, thin as spindles under his ancient black trousers. His right hand rose, palm toward me as he read,
"To teach clear thinking and orderly use of precise words and to castigate whatever is slovenly, pretentious or pedantic."
"Slovenly..." I mused. "Yessir, I agrees wif' that idea--folks has let their language devolve into nuthin' much mor'n cliches' and cussin'! You reckon thas' on account of not teachin' Shakespeare no more?
"Oh, why no, there is cussing of sorts in Shakespeare, though it assuredly is ' orderly and precise' enough according to Fowler. And for that matter when words are well chosen there is no longer need of cussing. "
I cocked mah haid to the side, "ya mean cussin' a body out wif'out usin' no cuss words?"
"There is no category of 'cuss words' in Modern English Usage precisely because there are so many better words with descriptive or dismissive certitude so as to reduce our contemporary vulgarisms to little more than the angry grunts of of the Cro-Magnon."
A smile played around the corners of his mouth--my cue to ask for an example.
"Why is I shure youse got an sample of what ya mean?"
His eyes twinkled, "Perhaps I may offer one incident paraphrased from the unmatched wit
of George Bernard Shaw. When a tipsy lady of lesser lights leaned flirtatously toward him at dinner one evening and murmured, 'we would make marevelous children together, with your brains and my beauty', to which the homely vivant replied, 'But madame, I dare not risk it--with my luck, the result would be the reverse.' "
I couln't hep a little snicker gettin' pas't mah lips, "heh...yes I reckon that says far more than, 'you drunk *#&@!, leave me alone.' "
"Granny used to tell us of a Claire Booth Luce-Dorothy Parker exchange where a third woman was extollin' the social graces of Ms. Luce, noting how the Grande Luce was 'always so kind to her inferiors' --whereupon the dauntless Ms. Parker inquired, 'Wherever does she find them?' ."
Phineas chuckled. "You know, Aristotle notes in Book Four of Ethics, that controlling our speech is the premier method of preserving civilized public discourse.
That is why, 'I' don't care for your tone, Cyrus' covers more ground than 'what a crass jerk you are, Cyrus.' It permits the put down, yet keeps the door ajar, providing the tone can be civil."
As I watched Phineas depart through into the treeline I wondered when I would next have the opportunity to elevate mah own cussedness, "Thou art like a toad; ugly and venemous." (As You Like It) . It put me in mind of Granny who is quick to call ner-do-wells "lily-liver'd" (" Thou lily-liver'd boy", Macbeth)
Entertain me, Sweet Thangs wif' yore own favorite elevated put-downs.