My grade school French teacher bragged that France had a special institute to preserve the purity of the language. It reviews trendy new phrases - many of them imported from America - and decides whether to sanction their use.
Nose in the air, she said Americans just make up any silly word or phrase they like and some fool puts it in the dictionary. Recent examples that help make her point include "yuppie" and "disinformation."I thought the American system sounded like more fun and set out to invent some new words or phrases. "Wriglick" (the short, awkward chunk of hair that remains after you cut out the chewing gum) never caught on, nor did my other creation: "a bird in the hand . . . is unsanitary."
My teachers discouraged me from developing my talent, so I forgot all about inventing language.
Until I came to Utah.
I had just gotten off the plane and was trying to collect my luggage when I heard my first creative Utah English.
" . . . then dinner was late," said a woman holding a baby and leashes leading to two other children. "The stewardesses were probably off flirting with the pilot. And now I can't find my suitcases.
"I try to be a good sport, but this has really got my dandruff up."
I had heard of getting your dander up, but this was something new. Since I could never get a clear mental picture of dander, dandruff seemed like a definite improvement.
A few years later a friend decided to move to Salt Lake City, and I helped her look for an apartment. We found a small, unfurnished attic apartment, but she owned no furniture.
"Oh, there's some furniture stored in the basement," the landlord said. "The last guy took it out. He was really weird - didn't like tables or chairs.
"He didn't even have a bed. He slept on a crouton."
My friend chose that instant to inspect the closet, and muffled guffaws escaped under the door. I pondered the size of crouton the man must have needed and wondered if the crunch would keep him awake. He should have slept directly on a bed of lettuce, I concluded.
But still, crouton is a lot more descriptive than futon. Both are square and usually white. Why not choose the more creative word?
I was less impressed with the next Utah word masters I met - two preteen girls walking through the mall in Roman sandals and miniskirts. Their shirts were torn, no doubt by professional tearers in Paris. They each wore about 20 jangling bracelets.
"I can't believe how much Tiffany spends on clothes," one said. "She's a real Fashion Place."
Now, I have never liked the term "fashion plate." It makes me think of Nancy Reagan's expensive china. But Fashion Place is a noun that only works in Utah because of the mall by the same name. If we want our words in the dictionary, we have to think on a national level.
I was interviewing a Mapleton official last month on the city's water rationing, and he was concerned about the possibility of having to fight firework-caused fires over the Fourth of July weekend.
"We are hoping all the residents just leave town and do their fireworks somewhere else. If they were gone for the weekend, we could build up our water levels.
"If we had just a little more water, all our problems would be relieviated."
I was stunned by his genius. It would never have occurred to me to combine "relieve" and "alleviate" to form a single word twice as powerful.
But not all Utahns are so talented at creating new language. I was watching a fruit-preserving demonstration at ZCMI, and the woman in charge mentioned "squirting something away for a rainy day."
I approached when the crowd cleared and asked her about the phrase.
"I wasn't sure if it was `squirting' or `squiding' something away for a rainy day," she said.
Innovative, yes; but I think I'll stick with "squirreling" for the time being. I never thought of a squid as a particularly conservative animal.
And besides, why would a squid care about a rainy day?