The Old Reprobate

It’s hotter’na two dollar pistol.

My Granddady Melvin is what most people would call “colorful.” He’s a serious person who did serious work for several decades (a town cop and then chief of police), but he has a certain flare.

Why did you never run for office?

You gotta shine to many shoes and kiss too many asses and I don’t like the taste uh shit or shoe-polish.

What do you think of this person or that?

Sumbitch oughta be smeared with shit an’ shot fer stinkin’

Or

That boy cain’t tell his hind parts from a horse’s ass.

How are you?

Good enough fer ole folks.

How’s the weather?

Hotter’na two dollar pistol.

A friend recently shared a post on Facebook:

“My new hobby idea: using phrases that sound like down-home folksy expressions you learned from your grandma but are actually just nonsense you just made up.”

Her reply:

“I mean, in reality, a lot of em are actually made up on the spot – we’re just really good at allegory.”

My mother often calls my granddad “The Old Reprobate.” I was reading Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies recently and ran across the phrase. The narrator described a volatile, lively, and slightly shady character as an “old reprobate.” Mom recommended the book, so I immediately texted her and asked if that’s where she got the phrase. She never noticed it, but assured me that the book was barely ten years old and that Granddaddy Melvin taught me to call him that when I was barely old enough to talk and had been teaching my sisters and cousins the same since before I was born. He’s also called “Fish.” He calls himself an “Ornery ole cuss.” But “Old Reprobate” is the only name I’ve seen replicated in the work of a decorated novelist.

Writers do that all the time. Zora Neale Hurston and Mark Twain are known for their command of American vernacular. Auster himself considers his “wildest” project with language to be the first half of his Mr. Vertigo, written from the perspective of a crass, unschooled St. Louis street urchin. The work of James Joyce and J.D. Salinger, in their attempts to trace the unfiltered inner monologues of various characters, achieved a similar sort of high literature with everyday speech. As readers, we often treat these projects like they’re technical studies. They feel to us like someone writing in Latin. Extremely impressive to sculpt a plot and characters from such exotic and unknown (yet still cold, dead, inert) clay, no?

Our instinct is to assign dialects with different grammatical structures and cadences unfamiliar to standard English to a sort of anthropological novelty. They’re history, dead languages clung to in corners of the Black Belt, working class Staten Island, bits of Minnesota that hang from the Canadian border, or woods of middle Appalachia. We don’t imagine them to be living things, revised and updated constantly. When teenagers in the burbs add something as simple as “bae” to their vocabulary, we immediately consider it for “word of the year” or debate its inclusion in the dictionary. But it’s beyond our comprehension that vibrant vernacular dialects are evolving all the time by the same means: Pop culture, current events and current needs, alternative uses of existing phrases, and pure force of creativity.

I grew up in the mountains and hang on every word my “great grizzled grandpappy” utters, and my first instinct upon reading his words in a book was that they came from someone other than him. He says something utterly insane even now, and the first question is – “Christ, where does he get this stuff?” The answer: eight decades of living, reading newspapers front to back, pulp detective novels, friends, massive volumes of history, works of literature, his wife and children and grandchildren, news broadcasts, and probably the bible all tossed into a sharp mind with a quick wit.

Language is a remarkable thing, but it’s also a means of filtering the world. Saul Bellow wrote that “One’s language is a spiritual location, it houses your soul [...] your English is the principal instrument of your humanity.” It can be exclusionary for the same reason that it’s transcendent. Our language is the principal instrument of our humanity, therefore we take language that sounds foreign, stilted, unintelligible, or silly to us and impart those qualities to the speaker. That we simply don’t understand every aspect of another’s humanity rarely occurs to us. A language that is still spoken still evolves and contains strains of creativity and expression that remain hidden to all but the fluent.

Identity, Language, VirginiaPeter Amos