Monday, April 6, 2020

Quote of the Day (Ring Lardner, on ‘Fightin’ Words’)

“You know they's lots o' words that's called fightin' words. Some o' them starts a brawl, no matter who they're spoke to. You can't call nobody a liar without expectin' to lose a couple o' milk teeth--that is, if the party addressed has got somethin' besides lemon juice in his veins and ain't had the misfortune to fall asleep on the Panhandle tracks and be separated from his most prominent legs and arms. Then they's terms that don't hit you so much yourself, but reflects on your ancestors and prodigies, and you're supposed to resent 'em for the sake of honor and fix the speaker's map so as when he goes home his wife'll say: ‘Oh, kiddies! Come and look at the rainbow!’" —American short-story writer, sportswriter, and playwright Ring Lardner (1885-1933), “Three Without, Doubled,” from Gullible's Travels (1917)

In days gone by, “fightin’ words” could get you involved in a duel (think Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin or, closer to home, Hamilton) or a clan feud (one of the centerpieces of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn). These days, they are regularly lobbed on Facebook, among longtime friends, and involve politics. 

In high school or college, friends would be too busy partying to care much about religion, the free-enterprise system, or the role of the government. Now, alone at a computer, unable to break bread, drink it up, and have some laughs, you can’t believe what an idiot that guy is. 

In one way, I suppose, all that “social distancing” we have been doing recently might work—we simply have no means to come to blows, let alone whip out a gun, when someone really, really annoys us. (Years ago, when two co-workers got into a raging argument, one told me later: “For the first time in my life, I understood the value of gun control!”)

On the other hand, distance—and, even more so, the anonymity provided in many parts of the Internet—has encouraged hyperbole and unreason. In those moments, forbearance is in short supply. 

At that point, it’s best to have a laugh—and glory in the fascination with American slang—displayed by that true original, Ring Lardner (much admired by good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald), in passages like the above.

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