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Silver Threads: When vocabulary was king

When our grandsons were small, I taught them one new BIG word a week.

“Ah, there’s the ubiquitous shopping cart,” I once said as we drove into a grocery store parking lot littered with them.

“What’s oo-bick-us, Maw Maw?” they asked. (Their mother had introduced me by that name to the older one, and I hadn’t been quick enough to insist on a more refined and elegant moniker, as had some of the Mimis, Bebes, Meres and Grandies of my acquaintance.) It‘s to be hoped they‘ll remember our word lessons as well as they have this homely name for their grandmother.

I don’t think that children are ever too young to acquire a good vocabulary, so it was with horror that I viewed an advertisement for a “plain English” version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

What does that mean? It was sent to me via internet by the makers of and suppliers of books for my e-reader, offering up for sale a version geared to teenagers who had “so enjoyed the ‘Twilight’ series.” (Darcy as a vampire?)

Does this mean that the famous opening line of the Austen novel will read something like, “Everybody knows that when a rich man without a squeeze moves into a neighborhood of poor girls he’ll soon hook up with one of them”?

I couldn’t get inside the book — virtually speaking — to find out how plain its English is. But I did get a look at the back cover, which touts the contents as “notorious to generations,” so you can see what kind of paraphrases we’ll be dealing with.

What’s happening here? I thought that our world had been dumbed down sufficiently what with the Kardashians and Dog the Bounty Hunter on the tube, and now they’re messing with the classics.

You can probably tell I’m upset. What if they get a hold of Shakespeare? “To off myself or not; that’s the problem I’m facin’, dude.”

I read Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice when I was 13, and now I notice they’re suggested for 18-year-olds. I wasn’t any smarter at 13 than kids are today; certainly not when they can navigate complicated tech gadgets that I wouldn’t dream of putting my aged fingers on.

And my grandsons are spouting some math and science facts I never even heard of. They didn’t teach this stuff to 13-year-olds at my school; you had to go to college and take it as electives or cores for majors in engineering and such.

But literature and vocabulary seem to have been shifted to a back seat in the school bus.

I got to thinking about all this the other day when a friend sent me two pages of “glorious insults from an era before the English language got boiled down to four-letter words.”

I’ll share some with you:

* “He has all the virtues I dislike, and none of the vices I admire.” — Winston Churchill.

* “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” — Clarence Darrow.

* “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends. — Oscar Wilde.

And my favorites:

* “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.” — George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill.

* ”Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second … if there is one.” — Winston Churchill, in response.

There‘s nothing hard to understand about this exchange, and just think how much more entertaining Churchill’s answer is than the two short words so ubiquitously used in our time.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of The Times Picayune Living section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at


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