Micro-fiction: The Language of Baloney and Kebab

Tom and I were discussing language. We do that sometimes.

This particular time, we were looking for ways to make people who don’t speak English more comfortable with what they learn as they learn; to let them know they were keeping up. A general observation of learning is that you always feel like you are learning yesterday’s language and of things that don’t matter much to native speakers no matter what language you are learning.

Me: It’s nice to be fluent and say “hello! here is my passport, sir” with distinction and such, but most people live off the new things that get said, not the standard things that get said. That’s not right. It’s just the way of a fallen world.

Tom: I know what you are saying. Who would understand Lisa’s baloney story if they didn’t speak English for quite a while?

Tom’s nephew was over. As natural as breathing he says: What baloney story?

Everybody knows Lisa; but not everybody is familiar with all her stories. I don’t think anyone is; they can’t be numbered. She can be fun that way sometimes when she’s got enough money for her bills and you happen to have a lot of time at the post office.

Tom looks at me and I nod back at him, so he goes: The hardware store? Uptown?

We only have one. The nephew nods and shrugs.

Tom: It used to be both a hardware store and a IGA.

The nephew draws a blank.

Tom. It’s a chain of grocery stores. One half was the hardware and the other was the store. Where they got the paint section now? Used to be where all the eggs, milk, butter, all that kind of stuff was in one of those open refrigerated things. Anyway, up by the register was the scales and they had the cuts of meat behind glass. The scales were them old fashioned kind, the ones that stood up about two feet high, had the big arrow that went over the numbers when you pushed, I mean when you put something on ’em?

The nephew draws a blank on his face.

Tom: The ones they got today are a lot smaller and you need to know the type of equipment to get the story. The scales would be up to my stomach if I was standing on the floor and it was standing on a normal counter ..and about just under where a woman’s breast would be?

The nephew gets a weird look on his face.

Tom; That look you got is part of the story. I know you ain’t supposed to think about thing’s like that at your age, but for the purposes of understanding the story, take a time out. Anyway, you could get baloney by the pound.

Nephew: You still can. Up there at..

Tom: Okay. That ain’t the point. You’d go in and they’d cut it up and put it on the scales, like they do today, except with the old scales. The owner of the store at that time had a wife with big titties and she’d wear a low cut dress. And what she’d do is get the customer to look at the numbers and she’d lean over and her titties would press down on the scale and the customer would have to pay more and get less baloney.

I smiled at the layers of puns wrapped up in that one while the nephew shrugged: She was a cheat.

Tom; well ..yeah. But it was how. See back then, and even today, if you were a man you weren’t supposed to be lookin’ at them titties. She was a married wo-man. You were supposed to be lookin’ at what else was on sale, at whoever was comin’ in the door, thinkin’ about God or whatever else other than them titties. See? So the only way to catch her was to be immoral.

Me: Well, you didn’t have to actually BE immoral. You just had to keep a sharp eye without bein’ immoral.

Tom. You know what I mean. Anyway, when Lisa tells that story, she always laughs in her way and almost shouts : Them titties sold a lot of baloney! Some stories only old women can tell the best about other women.

Me: And when she says it, you get the impression she thinks it was smart and she wishes she had been that smart back then. Sometimes she would fake a laugh to see what the preacher would look like as she told it and laughed.

Nephew: you mean she was taking advantage of the fact I wasn’t supposed to be looking? To …to .. now that’s low down dirty pool.

Tom: True. True indeed. Now here’s the thing: how do you portray that to non-native English speakers. You tell that story to somebody that doesn’t know that baloney is an actual meat product, but you really never know what’s in it and so the word baloney has become a synonym for a mysterious mingling of words or outright lies for a host of reasons and they’ll just look at you with a blank stare.

Me: what’s worse: if you had to explain the details to them they almost couldn’t laugh.

Nephew: why?

Me: language classes are taught as if no immorality ever existed on planet earth: all the phrases and vocabulary are the most polite speech and the assumption of the good intentions –not to mention the supposed free will — of everybody. So if you told that story –and stories are the way people get to know each other and feel like they are participating in the new speech and aren’t getting behind –and if they finally did understand it, they would have to demonstrate something about themselves to laugh. And what they would have to demonstrate would be outside the bounds of the normal etiquette you encounter in language classes. So at best you’d get a polite ‘ha ha’ and a quick movement away from the moment ..which could be its own funny moment of a sort. The point is to tell a story that they understand, that has some complication, a pun here and there and they will recognize that they know English, and English speaking people, more than they thought they did and be encouraged. But most people who don’t speak English wouldn’t get the puns on ‘baloney’.

Nephew: you could say ‘kebab’ for the Arabic speakers. I hear you never know what that stuff really is.

Tom: But do they say ‘kebab’ the same way? They may say it is a mystery meat but might not use the word the same way.

Me, smiling: For all we know, that story started out in Arabia and just turned into baloney.

Nephew: you think people do that with language? I mean, you ain’t supposed to be lookin’ and your supposed to assume they are all in a language class and so they..

Tom: You’ll be the President one day, son.

Nephew: You know Lisa means smooth in Spanish.


Proverbs 1:22  How long, simple ones, will ye love simpleness, and scorners take pleasure in their scorning, and the foolish hate knowledge?

In the Name of Jesus Christ, amen

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