Saunders: Y'all politicians be careful tryin' to talk like us

bsaunders@newsobserver.comAugust 15, 2012 

Gee whiz, Joe. Couldn’t you have stepped in it a day earlier – for my sake?

Vice President Joe Biden made his recent comment about Mitt Romney putting “y’all back in chains” on the same day my column castigating politicians for linguistic slumming ran.

Gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, in his effort to share some of his Charlotte wonderfulness with the rest of the state, had raised my ire and that of English teachers everywhere days earlier when he said in a TV ad: “I’m Pat McCrory, and I’m runnnnin’ for governor,” as though leaving the “g” off would convey that he can relate to the unlettered and presumably less-educated masses.

That’s a common ploy of politicians trying to sound folksy and accessible. Sarah Palin, when runnin’ for vice president, avoided “g’s” at the end of words the way a snail avoids an overturned salt shaker. I found President Obama guilty of the same offense, noting that in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus he dropped the “g’s” from some words. Palin, McCrory and Obama, I felt, were patronizing their audiences – us.

Some readers, no doubt those who could discern partisanship in a plate of butterbeans, accused me of picking on Republicans.

Oy.

Biden, speaking of Romney’s perceived plans to let the business markets have free rein and to “(u)nchain Wall Street,” said to a racially diverse audience: “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”

Preachers and politicians

He sounded for all the world like a Southern Baptist preacher trying to stoke his congregation before passing the collection plate – or a politician trying to stoke his audience before an election.

Had Biden steered clear of the colloquialism and simply said, “They want to put the middle class” – or even “you” – “back in chains,” which is what he insisted he meant, he could’ve averted his latest gaffe. Of course, were he to avoid gaffes, then he wouldn’t be Joe Biden.

Whatever one thinks of the efficacy of his comment, and despite your political affiliation, who among us raised in the South didn’t cringe at hearing a dude from Delaware saying “y’all” in Virginia in any context?

Leave it to the pros

Had Joe just read my column that day, he’d have known to stay away from that colloquial minefield. As my former column-writing co-hort Dennis Rogers once wrote in this space, “y’all” should not be attempted by everyone. I’ll go so far as to say “y’all” – like skydiving, sword-swallowing and pole dancing – should only be attempted by professionals.

Here’s a tip for politicians: when it comes to y’all or you all, if you have to stop and think about whether to say it – don’t. The words or the contraction should fall as naturally and as gently off your tongue as melting butter off of a hot hushpuppy.

Oops, I’m making myself hungry: better leave those food metaphors alone. With rare exceptions, though, it’s been my experience that only people who’ve eaten a fatback sandwich or a banana sandwich – because they had to, not because they heard Elvis ate one and they thought it would be fun to try it – can fearlessly use the word.

It’s for sure that if you have to look at a map of where you’re headed and then archly tell your speechwriter, “I say, old bean. What say we sprinkle a few more colloquialisms into this bad boy, no?” – then you are headed for a disaster.

No, a distraction, which at best – and worst – is what Biden is guilty of.

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bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811