I used the phrase “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” in conversation the other day, and I never felt more like my dad than in that moment.
It reminded me that each generation has its own brand of slang, its own unique colloquialisms. Part of the beauty of language is how it evolves. Particular words or phrases rise and fall in popularity, while some manage to bridge the generational gaps.
Take the word “word.” It’s the most basic of words, because words are our chief mode of communication. But “word” has multiple meanings in its slang usage, which emerged during the 1980s.
There’s an old song by Cameo called “Word Up!” that is credited with the rise of “word”’s slang iteration. The song came out in 1986, as hip-hop was beginning to dominate mainstream radio.
I remember the song fondly, and it was my introduction to “word,” which I still use to this day. “Word” is generally used to express agreement, but it is a versatile word. To wit:
“Yo, I got those new Jordan kicks.”
“Hey, I procured the new Michael Jordan sneakers.”
“Oh my, you did?”
“Yes, I did indeed.”
It can also serve as an affirmation of truth:
“This is Dre’s dopest album yet.”
“I believe this to be Dr. Dre’s strongest musical effort to date.”
“That is an accurate statement.”
As you can see, “word” is a very economic word. As a writer, I appreciate that.
For three-plus decades, “word” has remained a stalwart of our collective vocabulary. Other words and phrases have not, which is a shame, but I like to break them out now and then.
Another one my dad likes to use is “fair to middlin’” when asked how he’s doing. When something bad happens, he’s fond of saying, “Well, it could’ve been worse.” And his best piece of life advice is, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
I have found myself uttering these phrases throughout the years.
I also enjoy using big or fancy words, especially those that have fallen out of common usage. When I worked at the Oxford Eagle in college, staff photographer Bruce Newman would often ask me, “What’s the big word of the day, Brad?”
And I would reply with “matriculate” or “ineffable” or “alliterative.” I saw Bruce a few weeks ago at a football game, and right on cue he asked, “What’s today’s big word, Brad?” I don’t recall what I said, but I remember being disappointed it wasn’t something more literarily exquisite.
Perhaps I’ve lost a step.
The best kind of word, though, is the right word. The word that says precisely what you’re trying to express, and it doesn’t matter how big or small or fancy or mundane it is. Being a good writer or orator or conversationalist is all about communicating precisely what’s in your head, which is no easy task.
And simply knowing words isn’t enough. In the movie “The Program,” about a college football team, one of the players makes himself learn a new word every day and then uses it in conversation. He believes this makes him more educated.
But his tutor calls him out. She says to him, “Will you stop using those big words? They make you sound ridiculous. … Pretending to be smart is not the same thing as being educated. It’s just a con that makes you sound stupid.”