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On Language

Nuts to You

From 2011, an ode to the pleasures of vulgarity, in which a bookseller tries to give every customer one unsafe moment. And, yes—that’s what she said.

Adriana Farmiga, Tennis Balls, 2010. Courtesy the artist and 443 PAS.

Sometime in the first six months after I began working the counter at my first bookstore job, I started offering each customer a sack for their books. I say “started because no one in the Pacific Northwest or their right mind says “sack.” We say “bag.” Actually, we say “bayg.”

“Sack” began innocently enough, a subversive way of making a polite conversation vulgar. “Do you need a sack to carry your books home?” I ask.

“Come again?”

And I repeat, “A sack, to put your books in?”

“Oh. Only if you have a small one.”

To which I respond, “Of course!” with the most subtle evidence of a smirk.

If you’re not following, you probably haven’t spent much time in the locker room, as an adolescent, familiarizing yourself with John Waters, watching drag shows, doing shots of God-knows-what in dive bars, or occupying an otherwise thoroughly rude atmosphere. Or maybe you’re from Florida.

That’s not a dig. Since “sack joined my lexicon at work, I have taken it everywhere: around town, to the grocery store, to the farmer’s market. The response I most often get, aside from oblivious assent, is, “Are you from the East Coast?” or its close contender, “Are you from the South?” I’m from neither; and, although “sack” can be more prevalent in those places to tote your miscellany, it’s not unique to either. I think what most people mean is, “You’re not from around here, are you?” because, really, some people couldn’t pin a tail on a donkey. The word has legitimate semantic substance beyond the male anatomy somewhere, but where, exactly?

“Oh, you have an accent!” a man behind me at the grocery checkout says. “Sort of down-home, isn’t it?”

“So do you,” I reply.

If you are fascinated by Romance languages because their nouns are gendered and you think ours aren’t, think again.

He just laughs before he tells the clerk, “Just the bægels. I don’t need a bayg.”

Throw out “sack,” and if your mind isn’t in the same gutter mine is, you’re certain to find those whose are. And if you are fascinated by Romance languages because their nouns are gendered and you think ours aren’t, think again.

I’m still waiting for some extended adolescent like me to laugh directly into my face when I offer him a sack. The best I’ve gotten is a snicker followed by, “No, I don’t think so,” while he shakes his head. No eye contact.

In my experience, men tend more often to recognize a subtext to the conversation, if nothing more than one that is juvenile and uninteresting. But I’ve also wondered if a guy might take offense. It doesn’t take extensive deconstruction to read the conversation as a slight to one’s manhood. “I couldn’t help but notice you’re buying books; do you need supplementary masculine material to make it all the way home?” When I spend too much time thinking about it, the question sounds akin to, “Man up.”

To be just a little more meta: Asking the question of women almost seems like it could be more insulting: “Excuse me, missy, might you need a man to carry your purchases home for you?” However, if I follow this logic, the alternative verbiage isn’t much more appealing: For a brief time I tried to return to using “bag,” only to internalize guilt over an increasingly archaic, feminine pejorative definition for the word. “Ah! I see you’re purchasing books. You must be on the fast track to lonely spinsterhood.”

I got into bookselling for love of language’s mutability, its rich history of uses, for better or worse. Yet as history advances, some argue the book is a relic of a superstitious age and prophesy the eternal reign of something newer, sleeker, more inclusive, more flattering, and with more megapixels. Online buying and e-readers are becoming more and more common while my efficacy on the sales floor fumbles through the heady intoxicant of our aging language.

All this self-deconstruction turns self-disparaging more quickly than I can make change for a fifty. But surely this is just some mere white flag of a hyperactive, literary mind, in the crossfire of argument for argument’s sake, conditioned a little too heavily by linguistics and Derrida for 20 to 25 credits at a liberal arts school, cooped indoors for days at a time. (An old bag if there ever was one.) If all this is not a concoction exclusive to my overactive imagination, one is left to assume that the outmoding of one medium by another might one day reach a stall, as each in turn saturates its audience beyond the brink of commonality.

When was the last time you spent the daylight hours excavating the Urban Dictionary? You’d not only be shocked at the poor grammar and spelling and scandalized by the racy definitions, but also impressed by the pervasive inversions of common conversational words and phrases. I mean, “nook”? Let’s just say it’s not your average e-reader. Granted, the dictionary is a free-access website of fairly low repute. I listed the term “go babies,” which hasn’t really caught on, but I think it’s only a matter of time.

However we try to exercise PC language, I’m finding that many words are unsafe for public use in this day and age of safe words. Some of us were in the break room when one co-worker came looking for a snack. Another offered her sack of Rainier cherries. “My family just keeps sending me tons of them. Why are there so many this year?”

Some argue the book is a relic of a superstitious age and prophesy the eternal reign of something newer, sleeker, more inclusive, more flattering, and with more megapixels.

“It has been extra wet.”

“Is wet good for cherries?” I asked.

It seemed like a reasonable question. Until the words were out there. And not a moment passed before the first bookseller found a canister of peanuts in her cabinet raid, only to scoff when she discovered they were unsalted, “Nuts are a carrier for salt!”

It took us a while to recover. Snickering could be heard for the rest of the hour, and none of us were put off by any of it. But some people get upset over vulgarity, rate movies more harshly because of it, ban books or issue “clean” rewrites, censor television and music, demand inclusive language, repaint bathroom stalls. People shouldn’t be exposed to what they don’t want to see and hear, I guess, but the fact remains that vulgarity is there whether you like it or not, like Amazon. Its implications, its prevalence are boundless if you’re paying attention.

Vulgar once simply meant “common,” as in “everybody except the royalty.” Now it has all sorts of bad connotations—debased, unrefined, crude, ignorant, lack of good breeding—that the word “common” has almost entirely eluded over time.

Almost.

Make no mistake, I will continue serving the book-buying public with a sack and a smirk as online buying becomes a more common way to buy books. I wish it weren’t that way, but common is as common does. Meanwhile, bookstores rarefy. So I revel a little in our shared moment of royalty when my customers prompt me, “Do I need a what?”

Writer David K. Wheeler is the author of Contingency Plans, a collection of poetry from T.S. Poetry Press, and the independent rock album There There. His essays have also appeared at TheHighCalling.org, BurnsideWriters.com, and in The Pacific Northwest Reader, an essay collection from Harper/Delphinium. Visit his website for more about his writing. More by David Wheeler