I’ve decided to eliminate a word from my vocabulary; up to the point, at least, I start sounding like a NYC taxi driver. It isn’t a curse word; most vulgarity, when closely observed, comes in four letter combinations, this one is only three. Its history, from what scholars can tell, dates back to the 10th century, and while its matured into several grammatical uses over the centuries, for the purpose of this discussion, its conjunction form is where I’m most concerned.
In case you’ve forgotten everything from third grade, a conjunction – such as and, or, yet, nor – has serious separation anxiety. It doesn’t do well by itself, isn’t a leader, and instead is a pleaser who wants to make sure other words get along. It’s also quite popular, so much so, the conjunction has it’s own theme song – one that I’ve been unable to forget since 1973.
So what is this word I’ve chosen to shun, – ‘BUT’?
BUT, simple and lowly, means on the contrary, except, unless, otherwise, to set aside or on the outside of. While taken for granted by most, BUT is useful as a way of grabbing the listeners’ attention. When used at the right moment, a thought or argument can go off in an entirely new direction. It’s the vocab equivalent of a head fake. Here’s one example,
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
JFK’s inaugural address is, in my opinion, a perfect example to the power of ‘BUT’. His first, and most famous, declaration comes off rather tepid when put against the less memorable second. Why? That BUT, it immediately shifts our attention, we’re jolted out of lounging in our own selfish motives and are called to contrast our vanity with a higher calling.
The first sentence is a suggestion – the second is a demand.
In it’s purest and most often used form however, BUT is a harbinger, an omen of things to come and those things are most always bad. It is commonly preceded by candy-coated niceties, as a way of softening the listener for what’s next – a jagged pill of pain and rejection.
“I love you, BUT…”
“You’re a really great guy, BUT…”
“ I think you’re a wonderful woman, BUT…”
In such moments life comes to a standstill as that ‘BUT’ hangs there glaring ominously like the hooded cobra does a charmer – right before it goes for his face. We quickly get a funny feeling that whatever happens next isn’t going to be good.
Many years ago, I’m not sure when or where, I grabbed hold of some profound wisdom; the kind of knowledge that is so ingenious it requires a fertile and mature mind to adequately appreciate it,
Whenever you hear the word BUT, always know that whatever came before was a lie.
Granted, this is a bit overkill and while I don’t believe we’re all blatant liars on account of our grammatical leanings, it can’t be argued that BUT often carries with it the stale fragrance of insincerity. I’ve found myself growing ever more skeptical of those who round off kind words with BUT…then proceed to let fly their true feelings.
“Your brother-in-law is a great guy, BUT….”
The fact is, I really don’t care for your brother-in-law whatsoever, but I need some socially acceptable way of saying what I really think without sounding like a complete ass. This is why BUT is so deceptively useful, it provides a way of hiding my indifference behind impassive affections.
While this might work with in-laws and your boss, if our marriages stand a chance of survival they must be sustained with nurturing amounts of honesty and transparency, not peppered with flattering deceit- and the greatest of all fertilizers comes by way of the mouth.
Everyday conversations don’t come with a thesaurus or a delete button; and each of us, starting with myself, takes for granted the power of words, especially those spoken in romantic relationships or marriages. While one small word or off color remark will unlikely send a marriage careening suddenly off the cliff; that one word can, and usually does, leave a crack, and when they are multiplied become ruptures that weaken the bonds of commitment until they no longer hold under the natural strain of the relationship.
If I want to be sincere in my relationship with the Queen then I’d best not do things that make me sound otherwise. And I’m convinced one of the quickest and easiest ways to do that is through the things I say. Though we all want openness and honesty, hope alone – like many other four letter words – is of little value if are unwilling to nurture our relationships with the right ones while weeding out the words that aren’t.