Recently there was a documentary series on area PBS stations entitled "World War II: Behind Closed Doors." The portrayal of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was quite good. Apparently Stalin smoked a pipe, which reminded me I once thought that when I got old enough I'd grow a beard and smoke a pipe. Of course when I thought that, "old" was age thirty. I did grow the beard (another fascinating story I'm sure), but never quite got around to the pipe thing. It's not only the cost of tobacco, but Kay would have killed me long ago.
The thing about smoking a pipe, as the portrayal of Stalin demonstrated, is that having to re-light every few minutes, gives you time to think of an answer. As I don't smoke a pipe I tend to give answers before taking time to think about it. Surely I'm not the only person on earth who has this problem.
Talking before thinking leads to "mental crutches." These crutches, used too often as they are, can get to be very irritating. I recently saw a list of 10 of the Most Irritating Phrases in English.
It's a good enough list as lists go, but it missed the obvious: You Know.
The reader (and editor) will note this phrase is included here without the "?" mark. That is because it is never clear whether the speaker has in mind an interrogative or inquisition.
My introduction to "You Know" occurred almost 50 years ago -- the issue has been around that long.
The teacher's name was Mr. Little. He was about 5'4" tall and (his words) "a Negro from Boston Massachusetts." It was a speech class and I was the only white student. He did mention I was the most natural speaker in the class, but that was just his opinion.
One day Mr. Little stopped someone in the middle of their talk and demanded in words I never forgot: "Why do you say 'you know?' If I knew you wouldn't have to tell me!" He then proceeded to tell all of us how ignorant it sounded to use such mental crutches. Think about what you are going to say first he taught us. What he said next to his "Negro" students, which I will not attempt to repeat here and do not recall exactly, might cause a hate crime indictment today. But, it was 1959 and there was only one white student in the class.
In this same tirade he got into the other mental crutch Mr. Little hated, "in other words." "Why didn't you say it right the first time?"
Never did learn to smoke a pipe. But over the years I've found it is much safer to stop and write out one's thoughts before expressing them. This gives time to think and re-think exactly how something should be said. It also gives Kay time to tell me that none of it makes any sense.
In other words, sometimes I do wish I had a pipe to gnaw on before I open my mouth, you know.
David L. Lewis is an observer of and sometimes commentator on life who may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.