A Country for Old Men

In some American speech communities, being “good with words” is valued as a skill. Certainly this is the case in a number of studies of African American speech communities, and I have found that to be the case among Cajun communities as well. Within the broader stream of American folk culture, however, there is a healthy skepticism of individuals who are “good with words.” Salespeople and politicians are considered to be “smooth talkers,” a descriptor which rarely carries with it approbation. Instead, they are types of talkers whose talk we are encouraged to “take with a grain of salt” because in all likelihood any promises made were only in the moment and will not be kept.

All that noted, my own observations and a few recent conversations here with colleagues from diverse parts of the U.S.A. have interested me in a phenomena that may or may not be more broadly part of American culture. The anecdotes I have heard, and begun to collect only very loosely, have to do with the speech of older folks, mostly older men in my own work, who it seems feel freed of the constraints of the general opprobrium applied to talking without seeming purpose. Reflexivity in the stories and comments is high and often touches on topics that are usually considered of fairly sensitive nature in American common culture.

A small interchange reported to me recently is indicative of at least some of the things I am interested in teasing out:

> A man is complaining about various aches and pains and comments: “It sure is hell getting old.”

> His companion responds, “That’s not you getting old. That’s you dying.” And goes on to note that every ache is actually something dying within his friend. Both are laughing by the end of it.