June 1, 2012


I was listening to NPR, science Friday, in my car. Anthony Fauci was on and must have said, in
reference to a medical treatment, “modality” or “modalities” at least once in every other sentence.
He really likes that word. But wouldn’t “mode” have been sufficient? People like extra syllables.
Especially “ality and alities”. I heard a commentator on minority culture recently say “commonality” a
couple of dozen times. She really liked that word. The frequentality was striking. Did you know that
having skills will no longer get you anywhere? You need skill sets. It takes a lot of gut sets to
confront the challenges of the world these days.

This reminded me of something my friend Cathy, who teaches elementary school kids, said. “There are
certain words that kids like to say. Lady Gaga is really popular.” She recounted a conversation between
two second-graders she overheard recently:

“I really like the new Lady Gaga record.”

“Lady Gaga?”

“Yes, Lady Gaga.

“I don’t know if I’ve heard the new Lady Gaga record.”

“I like Lady Gaga’s new song a lot.”

“My sister really likes Lady Gaga.

“Lady Gaga’s my favorite.”

“Lady Gaga...”

I think it was Tennessee Williams who, when asked what he thought was the most beautiful word in
the English language, said “cellar door.” When pronounced with a southern accent. Celladoa. I was
determined, in my youth, to try to work it into a conversation, but could never find the opening -
so to speak.

I’ve settled for startling people with the British pronunciation of “again” (agayn), and “been” (bean)
when I remember to do it. Some affectations have great annoyance value. I have a cousin whose hair I
used to set on fire by working some showy, though hardly inaccessible, word into the conversation.
“My history homework is preposterous,” I’d say, and watch the steam drift out of his ears. Why this
inflamed his indignation, I have no idea. But I’d watch, nervously giddy, and fascinated.

“Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”

“It’s preposterous. I’ll never finish it by tomorrow.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down. A wrestling match would ensue.

Nobody wrestles people to the ground anymore who use uppity words, trendy phrases, or extra
syllables. We should. I think it would be a tremendous commonality-enhancing modality in the
linguistic social stream.