Columns » Bob Lancaster

Sluice this

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I've been writing newspaper columns for 44 years, and it was recently pointed out to me that the word “sluice” has never appeared in a single one of them.

That's now been corrected, of course.

There are people out there who keep track of such things. And they have the technology now so that you dassent argue with them, even if you were of a mind to.

I don't think my long avoidance of “sluice” means that I've had an unconscious prejudice against the word all this time, but it might. I've been made aware at different points along the way that I was similarly shamefully if unknowingly prejudiced against any number of words and expressions and people, places and things— cowbirds, for example, and Cabot, and geezers, and hyperbole, and cliches.

Thanks, thanks a lot, to those of you who keep me apprised of my shortcomings in this regard.

I wouldn't be surprised if at this very minute Glenn Beck were found researching a tip that there's not one mention of “sluice”  in the entire canon of Mousey Dong. Finding that to be the case, Glenn might go on to say, for effect, “Coincidence, then?  Not likely!,” and proceed to assume guilt by association, and, as is his habit, pin a hammer-and-sickle decal on my avatar there on his board.

That's the routine these days.

God help me if his research turns up the additional “coincidence” that neither “sluice” nor any of its German cousins appear a single time in any of Joe Goebbels' propaganda or in a single one of Leni Riefenstahl's films or in a single one of Nietzsche's books. That would cook my reputation's goose for sure. Or my goose's reputation.

A proved Nazi connection is better than a proved Commie one. It's like Kramer and the midget doing rock, paper, scissors and one of them asks, “What beats rock?” and the other says, “Nothing beats rock,” so from then on they both do rock ad infinitum and wind up in a perpetual tie.

Nothing beats a proved Nazi connection.

My long sorry record of discrinination against “sluice” also has surely confirmed the anti-abortionists' worst suspicions about ol'moi and about my, as they call them, ilk. “Sluice” comes up often, perhaps inevitably, in their discourse — it suits their grotesque imagery precisely and well — and what does that tell you about the chronic accusatory absence of it in mine?

The same meddling searcher for “sluice” noted additionally that he'd been unable to locate a single “tenebrous” in all the Ol' Moi corpus.

“What gives?” he demanded. “It seems a perfect word for your windy diatribes.”

When there's a choice between a longer, less common word like tenebrous, and a short, more common one like dark, I always go with dark, I informed him.

I learned that from George Orwell. Or E. B. White. From one of those usage mavens. Doug Smith, maybe.

That being the case, he might also have asked about “preciosity.”

I had a better answer for “preciosity,” which the online dictionary defines as “overrefinement in art, music, or language, esp. in the choice of words” — making today's discussion of it esp. apropos.

I used it once, and was proud to do so, in a stately piece of literature that I submitted for publication as a news article in the Pine Bluff Commercial. This was a long time ago. And I was a lot more vocabularily ambitious and promiscuous than I am here in crepuscular senility. As I recall I was complimenting a Rison pig farmer  — or it might have been the Monticello Ford dealer (in long-term memory, all the quotable regional goobs tend to merge) — for his preciosity in preparing for weather emergencies. 

The word I meant was probably “prescience”  but who can say in retrospect?

The Commercial editor who proofed this masterpiece was John Thompson, who will verify this account if you care enough to look him up. He balked at “preciosity” as his job description required him to.

What was it, exactly, he wondered.

I suggested smarmily that he look it up, which he forthwith did, and in his dictionary, which would have been the Webster's Seventh New Collegiate, the first definition of preciosity was this “1. fastidious refinement.”

So he changed it to that.

He had me publicly complimenting a Rison pig farmer's fastidious refinement, I excrement you not.

Now I'll be the first to admit that “fastidious refinement” probably lit more bulbs among Southeast Arkansas newspaper readers than “preciosity” would have. But it grieved me, and deflated me considerably, that it accomplished the task under my byline.

I'd like to say I learned a valuable lesson from the experience, but I didn't. 

I'm a big fan of swineherds, going back to the semi-divine ones in Homer, but I've never known one who was fastidiously refined. Not a one. The same with small-market Ford dealers. They are often of a nature that makes them more companionable than a hacking cough. But fastidious?  Refined? No, they are not that.

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