I’ve been an avid talker since age two, and I always suspected that I could make a career involving what a teacher once called my “virtuosity with sheer verbosity.” I remember a traveling salesman named Mr. Medlicott who frequently called at my father’s hosiery store and introduced me early to the joy of word play. He delighted me with riddles such as: “What is the only state name that contains a word and its opposite?” CONNECTiCUT, of course. And when I told him of my plans in college to become an English major, he asked: “Really, dear boy — in which regiment?”
But my first memories of the joy of words came much earlier. Many psychologists and linguists believe that children acquire their first hint of verbal authority when they pass through the terrible twos and discover the power of the word NO. But I’m sure when I was two that word held no power for me. Since both my parents were reared in Eastern-European Jewish homes, they firmly believed that NO was NEVER uttered by a child to his parents. Even “no, thank you” was suspect. So when my parents made a request, unless I wanted a potch (the vivid Yiddish word for spanking), I could never say No.
But there was another simple word that allowed the same negative possibilities of NO but was far less declaratory, far more philosophical, and therefore more "kosher" to use with my parents. That word is the lovely, lowly conjunction that opened the very paragraph which you are now reading: BUT. I do believe my love affair with language might have begun with this simple term.
I think it was the politely argumentative nature of the word that first attracted me. As opposed to the rather vulgar no, the word but implied an objection to what was being said but in a way that opened the possibility for debate. And did I ever love debating everything and anything as a child.
“Elliot,” my mother would say after dinner, “get in here and dry the pots and pans.” To respond with a no was a one-way ticket to punishment and a grounding. Yet the more tentative response — “But, Mom, I’m busy now” — just might allow the delaying tactic of further debate. I reasoned that if I just kept objecting politely long enough, nature would eventually come to my rescue and dry the stupid pots and pans through evaporation.
Unfortunately, what usually evaporated first was my mother’s patience. Off I’d trudge to the kitchen sink with no energy left for the task at hand but unlimited energy in reserve for future debates. And by the time I was a teenager I had enhanced my relationship with the word "but" by subtlety adding the term "yes" before it, thus creating the deceptively agreeable response of “Yes, but…” to numerous contests at home.
“Elliot,” my father would say, “Since it’s 20 degrees outside here, don’t you think you’d better go back inside for your gloves?” Being too lazy to leave my backyard snowman I’d counter with “Yes, but they’re predicting way above freezing by noon, Dad.” The technique worked well enough that in high school I used it in debating club to counter all opponents. They were arguing the virtues of nuclear disarmament? “Yes, but what about national defense?” Elimination of the draft? “Yes, but what about economic parity for those who serve?” Legalizing marijuana? "Yes, but what about its doorway to stronger drugs?"
I finally realized I was overusing my favorite phrase during the Debate Awards Banquet my senior year. I was hoping for Best Senior Debater and had already fantasized my acceptance. The Master of Ceremonies would hand me the trophy saying “We couldn’t have had a winning season without you”; I would reply “Yes, but I’d like to thank the rest of the team for their support.”
I was passed by for that prize, but it was announced I’d won a special award. With great solemnity, the master of ceremonies set before my plate what looked to be a butter dish and cover. I lifted it to find a stick of margarine. And someone had neatly stenciled the word YES on the softening slab. They were giving me my very own YES BUTTER award! When I later won two other prizes back to back at the banquet, I turned to my friend and remarked that — just like the Yes-Butter that I had spread on my dinner muffin — I too was now on a roll.