The Breakfast Table

Linguistic Resuscitation

Dear Dennis,

The issue of minority languages is one that I find very interesting, and you raised some important questions. You have written quite a bit about bilingual education and English-only movements. But I wonder what you think about some of the real minority languages.

In your letter, you mentioned Navajo and Breton (the Celtic language of Brittany); coincidentally, this morning I got a letter from a colleague who has published an extensive dictionary of Hopi and is working with educators to help Hopi children learn their ancestral language. It seems to me that such cases are viewed rather differently in the mainstream than, say, Spanish. People have a romantic attachment to these obscure languages, often for nationalistic reasons. (The Celtic languages are an especially relevant case–not only is there renewed interest in Breton, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh, but there are revival movements for the extinct Manx and Cornish. The Cornish revival movement is, in general, supported mostly by middle-class English people in Cornwall, not the descendants of the Celts who originally spoke the language.) Historical details often support these interests, as in the Navajo code-talkers who played an important role in World War II.

The political movements that support English as an official language are not threatened by Breton, Basque, or Boontling (a moribund argot spoken in a town in Northern California). They are threatened by Spanish, mostly. Do you think it ironic that there is interest in some of these languages at the same time there is such hostility to other languages and nonstandard dialects?

Back to “Lewinsky.” While the name does have a little currency as a slang term or euphemism for oral sex–more than I thought when I spoke to the New York Post–I agree that it won’t have much staying power. The difference between it and “Heimlich” or “sandwich,” to take two more common eponyms, is that there are many, many other terms for oral sex, but none for the Heimlich maneuver or a sandwich. A good comparison is the use of “OJ” as a verb. In 1994 and 1995, I collected a number of examples of “OJ” in the sense “to beat one’s wife or girlfriend,” and debated entering the term in the second volume of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which I was editing at the time. In the end, I thought that it was unlikely to last, and kept it out. Based on the subsequent history, I think it was a correct decision. It’s likely that without the senior Lewinsky’s calling attention to this usage, it would have died a relatively natural death; instead it will be remembered as a joke whenever her name comes up.