The Shape of Language

Funeral orgies….Muddy rubbers…More holes versus less holes…Reefer tugging…Heaters and hog legs…Where is your placenta buried?…and other phrases from the pages of respected literature that might give the wrong impression…

“So,” I said to her casually, “where is your placenta buried?”

“Freak,” she hissed. “What’s wrong with you?”

Before I had asked her the question, this anonymous woman sitting across from me in the library, I had weighed the consequences. I had not weighed them seriously, however, but in a sloppy and unconcerned manner, as is my usual method. Go ahead and ask her, I told myself. What’s the worst that can happen?

My immediate thought was that death would be the worst that could happen. But is it? At least death, on some level, gets you out of the situation that caused you to ask the question in the first place. It was suddenly possible, I realized as the woman continued to glare at me, that to stew uncomfortably in a situation for an interminable amount of time might be the worst thing that could happen, which was what was happening at that moment. The woman did not seem to fear me or my comment. She made no attempt to leave the table we were both seated at. But her face dropped like a rubber see-saw with two fat men on either end. She worked herself up with a series of throaty rumbles and began to threaten all sorts of things, vague things.

“I don’t know what gauntlet you think you’re running here, Mr. Placenta, but I can assure you that a formal statement from me to a man who joined the police force specifically to thrash a greasy little felon like yourself might be bad for your health and once you are in the system you are there and DNA don’t lie.”

Wow, I thought, that was a far stranger thing to say than the placenta question.

“Let me explain,” I said.

I’ll explain.

The placenta question was a frivolous bit of fun for me from a National Geographic article I had been reading some time ago. The article was about vanishing languages. In this case the Seri tribe of Northwest Mexico posed the ‘Where is your placenta buried?’ question when they wanted to know where you were from, since in that culture the afterbirth was buried in the ground at the site where you were born. The question, at that point, made perfect sense and seemed a harmless, interesting and unique way to begin a conversation. It sounded odd, but odd in a fun way, and now I found myself crawling from the soft dirt of the language hole I had buried myself in. The woman seemed to accept my explanation, but her tone was cautionary.

“That is all fine,” she said, “but language is a funny business. You must watch how you say things to a girl. I don’t know if you know this but as it turns out the placenta sits, for about nine months at least, in that part of a woman’s body where all men would like to enter. Most men, at least. Those who don’t know how to decorate.”

We agreed to be friends after that. To be honest she was a bit androgynous and I wasn’t sure at first if I had posed the question to a man or a woman, which, thanks to the Seri tribe of Northwest Mexico, I had found the answer to without having to ask in the usual way, and my thanks to anyone from the Seri tribe who happen to be reading this.

I was hanging around the library for the morning because my neighbor Valerie had begged me for a ride to the county courthouse because she had jury duty. Or at least that was what she said. There was a good chance she was on trial for something, and would be carted off in shackles and I would be stuck at the library, which was just down the street, not knowing whether to file an appeal, or just go home, or feed her dog, or adopt her son. Anyway, Valerie needed a ride because she couldn’t remember where she had left her car, and taxi drivers kidnap people all the time, she said, and I never had anything to do anyway and I might just be useful to somebody for once. I gave her a ride to the courthouse and told her to be as bigoted and close-minded as she possibly could without being held in contempt of court and she would be booted from the jury pool in due time.

At the library I had plucked “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” out of a random pile of books stacked around me. I started reading from somewhere in the middle, trying to jog my memory since I hadn’t read it since high school. I was a bit shocked to find a strange and startling phrase that jumped out of the page at me.

Funeral Orgies.


I thought at first I had picked up a William S. Burroughs book. In this instance the word orgy simply meant a party of sorts (the character in Huckleberry Finn amends it to ‘obsequies’) and I was reminded of Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” when he goes to visit his wife’s family in Texas and they have a Thanksgiving orgy, which, in Steinbeck’s travel log is just quail shooting and parlor games. There is something just so strange about the word, though. Orgy. Even when you say it it’s like having a bunch of anonymous, hairy men and women copulating in your mouth. You almost have to scratch your tongue to remove remnants of the word. I pointed this out to my new friend across the table from me who happened to be flipping through Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street”. I handed her the Huck Finn book and pointed to where she should pick up the thread. She read the page about the funeral orgies and said she didn’t realize that the book had dealt with necrophilia. She thought it was just about racial morality. There was a river involved, she said. That she was sure of. She handed the book back to me.

At the very least Mark Twain had given me some credence. If the greatest American writer had used such strange language, I was off the hook for my comments. She continued reading her book. I let her get into it a little bit, then warned her about the ‘muddy rubbers’ she would be encountering.


Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He was big on the stifling effects of middle class hypocrisy, rigidity, and the general fatalism that sets into the bones of his doomed heroes once their dreams are smashed to pieces. Yet, of all the things I’ve read from him, (except Elmer Gantry, which was just damn good through and through) the only thing that really stuck in my mind from the entire corpus of his writing was a phrase about a woman coming in from the rain and her ‘muddy rubbers’. It sounded entirely decrepit, like the title of some German snuff film. Needless to say I was a little put off by the phrase, even though I knew he meant galoshes.

I ran across the ‘rubbers’ thing though, sometime later, in Salinger’s “To Esme, with love and squalor”. Again, the rubbers are mentioned, in church no less, where people have them in their laps. (Apparently it was customary in Europe to put one’s galoshes in one’s lap, which made no sense. You couldn’t get your feet wet but you could soak your crotch?) Having been inoculated with the rubbers thing, I then had to contend, in the Salinger story, with the hero (if you consider sitting around a cafe drinking tea heroic) noting a little boy around five years old, Esme’s brother, tugging on his reefer. God in heaven, what a progressive society that lets a five-year-old sit around a European cafe smoking a joint. (Reefer, in this case, referred to the boy’s pea coat.)

As I thought about it, the noir prose of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett played loose and fast with slang. Gats, heaters and hog legs were guns. A fireplug was a hydrant. Jack was money. Woof meant weft and weft meant weave, as in a story by a lying bastard. The Big Sleep was death.

What a lovely living thing, I thought, the shape of language, of words, of the ability not just to mean what they are but to sound how they sound, to provoke a sensation by the click of the consonant and the purr of the vowel. The stertorous ‘G’, the vibratto of ‘V’ the smack-the-side-of-your-head stomp of the ‘K’. The words and phrases themselves. The dread or euphoria felt when the phrase falls. The evolution of enunciation. Ravel and unravel, flammable and inflammable. They mean the same thing. You (h)ear with your ear and your kin are of the same (s)kin, and a (t)ouch can result in an ouch. split the two e’s in see, drop the s, posit why and you’ve got an eye. (T)aste enough and you can sate with a flip of a few letters. Breathe deep. There is a whole factory of olfactory.

Suddenly I was reminded of “Americana” by Don Delillo and “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. On pages 96, and 146, respectively (in my editions, at least) the observation is made about the disparity of holes in the old standard telephone receiver. There are six for listening and something like forty for talking. For some reason it struck me to mind this one fact as it had been revealed separately in two great books. I noticed, throughout the course of the weeks that followed that people tended to do more talking than listening, and maybe the phone design was partly responsible. They just allotted a few meager openings for listening, but a huge cluster of empty holes were just waiting to be filled with the wisdom of the caller, for the language to run rampant from one side of the world to the other. It occurred to me that phones don’t work if everybody is just listening. It wasn’t just the technology but the design itself that hastened the evolving shape of the language.

I decided to leave the library. The day was bright and I could see people on the sidewalk talking nonstop, and I wanted to be a part of it. The woman across from me that I had momentarily offended didn’t take notice. She was sunk deep into Main Street, and I let her stay there. On the way out I stopped at the librarian’s desk and for some reason spit out a line from James Joyce.

“Lipsyg dooley krieging the funk from the hinnessy,” I said with a smile.

The librarian called me a vicious pig and slapped me in the side of my head with a big copy of Finnegan’s Wake. I should’ve asked her where her placenta was buried.

More alembics to come.

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