“I enjoyed it, may I be excused please?”
This tidbit of politeness may look innocuous to you, but it
is, in fact, a magical spell.
These eight words, when taken together, invoke a solemn rite
of power whereby feral, primal forces bound to a semblance of control could be
released from their imposed decorum and allowed, once more, to roam free and
cause what mischief they were able.
And of course, by “primal forces” I mean my brother and
myself as children. This particularly powerful charm was a requirement for
leaving the dinner-table, and I probably repeated it over five thousand times
in my youth. I sincerely doubt that I actually thought about any of the
individual syllables or phonemes as being connected to actual thoughts or
words, much less did I consider the actual meaning of the sentence itself. This
phrase held no context for me other than its intended effect:
You see, it was a long time before I considered the dinner
table to be more than a mandatory pause in my daily rounds of playing, reading,
and general mayhem. I certainly enjoyed eating, but didn’t really see the point
in remaining at the table any longer than it took to wolf down my food – the faster, the better, as
dinner often devolved into a competition for remaining portions of my mother’s
wonderful cooking. Once the feeding happened, I was done.
And for the life of me I could not fathom why my parents and
their friends apparently wanted
remain around the table after eating, frozen in this state of suspended animation
rather than doing something worthwhile. Like playing with legos.
So, as soon as humanly possible, I invoked this little bit
of hedge wizardry in order to escape the bonds of the table. And – here’s the
kicker – I thought everybody
do this. I did not at any level realize that this was not something that any
child, anywhere, had to say in order
to be released after mealtime. Thus my parents were showered with compliments
from teachers, friends’ parents, and all manner of adults regarding what they
perceived as my excellent manners, when in fact…
I was just casting a spell.
Years later, I started to really dig into the process of
writing – which has made me more ‘aware,’ I guess is the best term, of words.
This has meant learning that kids aren’t alone in using ‘magic words,’ words
that are used in context without any real attention being paid to their
For instance, when was the last time you really thought
about the phrase “You’re welcome”?
You’re probably smarter than I am, dear reader, but for a
majority of my life that was simply a reflex to the words “Thank you.” I never
really considered what I was saying – or whether I was actually being
American English is awash with regional ‘magic words’ – my
favorite is, of course, the Southern slate-wiper: “Bless his/her heart.” Comedian
Henry Cho got it right – you can say anything about anybody as long as you
follow it up with this phrase.
Some people love to buck the trend with these little
catchphrases that dot our lives. My grandfather’s stock response to the
standard “How are you?” greeting is to decisively state “Terrible,” and keep
moving wherever it is he’s going.
I don’t really have anything against ‘magic words,’ per se.
They provide some fluidity to daily living, part of the lubrication of
politeness that makes living and working with other people pleasant. (Or at
least more bearable.) But every now and then – perhaps more often – I think it
would be worth our while to actually consider what we’re saying.
You are – always – welcome.
And, of course, I thoroughly enjoyed it and appreciate your
efforts on my behalf. May I go back to my Legos, please?