“Vang the Leach!” “Steeve the Bumkin!”

April 9, 2008 By: Marshall Cutchin

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s entertaining thoughts on specialized vocabulary in The New York Times are a reminder of how peculiar our response to words can be. I consider myself tolerant of those who don’t “speak the language,” and I love a good malapropism, but if someone asks for a “rope” (instead of a line) or a “map” (instead of a chart) on my boat, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Then again, my seven-year-old’s favorite trick when driving the skiff is to try to hit all of the “boobies” (crab pot buoys), a terminology saved from age three because he knows it will make me laugh and reach for the steering wheel. And I’ll sigh deeply and loudly over any kind of pontification, given that it is usually filled with errors of fact and judgment. Truth is, every nomenclature can help define expertise, but set it loose in common conversation and it becomes pretentious bilgewater. It’s OK for fly rod designers to argue “spine” versus “spline,” but lord save me from a room full of rodbuilders frozen in disagreement over the same.
“I realize that I’ve spent most of my life happily sailing into fogbanks of specialized language. Some, like the vocabularies of philosophy and literary theory, never lost their slightly foggy quality, thanks to their inherent abstraction. But others, like the languages of fly-fishing and hog-raising and horse-riding, cleared up just as soon as I laid hands on the objects they named.”