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Boomer Bytes #34: Our Friends and Language

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

Our Friends and Language

By Steve Canipe

Sept. 5, 2014. Throughout our lives we have no doubt had many different friends. Some of them we have kept up with from elementary school or earlier and others have flashed into and out of our memories. As I have been thinking of my 50th high school reunion, I was struck by the temporary nature of some of the myriad of relationships we have had as boomers and of mine in particular.


Some of us were in the military and had extremely close relationships with fellow soldiers/marines/sailors/airmen. We were thrust into life and death situations and had to depend on each other to survive. These friendships were so very intense and almost akin to love of spouse (without the sex). Our lives were literally in each other’s hands. The Navy talks about the relationships aboard ship as “shipmates” and the Marines go even further and talk about the espirit de corps.

When we were in high school, we saw our friends every day and spent many hours with them in class and in afterschool activities like sports, drama, music, and clubs. In college we actually lived with some of our friends in the same dorm or even in the same room and shared much of our life. I can remember at Appalachian State, the many hours in the dorm, labs, and just plain living that were shared. Some of you have experiences that may be similar, where you were the nursemaid for buddies who had drunk too much and were “falling down drunk.”

Some of these experiences led to funny stories. During my freshman year, I lived in Justice Hall (still on campus). My days here were so long ago that we had “dorm mothers” who acted in loco parentis for us. The dorm mother for us was Mrs. Bell, whom we more or less affectionately called “Ma Bell.” She had an apartment on the 2nd floor just off the lobby.

Anyway on one particular Saturday evening, after some of the guys (back in my day we had unisex dorms) had been heavily drinking, most likely at Antlers in Blowing Rock-a popular place for that drinking activity in the day. As they were getting ready to go to bed at midnight or a bit beyond, several of them were in the first floor showers. We had a gang shower room on the hall. Being a little tipsy, they were singing loudly as they showered (and not particularly in a good harmony). I was getting ready for bed myself and was brushing my teeth when all of a sudden the door to the hall bath banged open and Ma Bell came storming into the bathroom and went directly to the shower room. I was startled that she would just come banging into the bathroom because a lot of us went back and forth from our rooms to the bathroom wearing minimal or no clothing! It was all guys and never before had she invaded our space.

Her incantation to the “singers” was to basically SHUT UP, as she was trying to sleep. Well you have never seen several naked guys try to cover themselves more quickly when they saw this older gray-haired lady standing there! They sort of quickly became more sober!! Her only comment upon seeing them doing the cover-up thing, was that she had been a nurse and had a couple of sons so what they had hurriedly covered, she had already seen. She then spun on her heel and left without another word, leaving several startled and slightly embarrassed young men in her wake. There was no more singing that evening.

It was a shocking experience for all of us but for those in the shower perhaps more so. Made a good story to tell and it cemented a common experience for all of us in the bathroom that late Saturday night. It is often these shared experiences that make for friendships.

Each of us has experienced things together with friends that make for that common bonding experience. It makes us part of a group, knowing things that others outside the “group” do not know. Sociobiologist and author Desmond Morris studied group interactions in primates (chimps) and then later extrapolated to humans. His ideas on shared language and “insider knowledge” are interesting. Two of his more entertaining books are The Human Zoo and The Naked Ape. Still in print and still relevant.

Morris talks about language use that helps to create those shared experiences. Each specialized field of study uses a particular vocabulary that only those in the know can really understand. Teens have emulated that and have developed a slang that was devised so that the adults could not understand them. Things that, even if heard, made no sense. We boomers had a number of such words that we still know but that have become passé today…things like “cool” and “groovey” for example – we don’t particularly use these words any more. Word meanings also change over time. When we were young, the word “gay” just meant happy. Then it morphed into a pejorative term and now it seems to be morphing back to be a neutral term more like male or female.

The most commonly used private usages today are in the area of texting abbreviations – some of which are now pretty widely used like BTW (by the way) and TTYL (talk to you later). One of the sites listing a great number of abbreviations is at NetLingo. Some of the terms listed are not particularly nice and use words that would not be appropriate with your mother! If your grandchildren are speaking what sounds like gibberish, you might look up the words/abbreviations at the NetLingo.com site.

Language is often said to carry culture and that may be true but it is definite that words help create and nurture group membership. These words can help form groups of friends who have and share insider knowledge. My older sister and her friends, used a type of speech called Pig Latin to discourage little brothers from understanding what they were talking about…little did they know that I and my pals quickly learned how to translate it to normal English!! I was able to use my language translation skills and knowledge of what they were talking about for blackmail purposes with Mom and Dad. I had invaded that friend group; definitely an interloper in their view.

Professional individuals also use language to encourage exclusivity – medical doctors, engineers, pharmacists, etc. use their “private” language to keep individuals in the dark and to enhance their stature of knowing something no one else does. It creates a type of collegial friendship network. Why else call the fingers the phalanges?

Friendships come and go and some are more enduring than others. Some friendships are based on mutual experiences and common language. Some friendships probably cannot be explained. Why is it that with some friends we can be separated for many years and upon reuniting, we are almost instantaneously reconnected? Friendship is a great thing; it helps sustain us in hard times and helps us maintain a steady keel. I have been extremely lucky over the years to have had so many wonderful friends with whom I have shared many things – high points and low points in my life. A friend is there for both highs and lows – a shoulder to cry on and hand to high-five.

As I get older, I feel a stronger urge to reconnect with old friends than ever. Family obligations and work have conspired to remove my closeness with some friends but age may be helping me realize the need for bringing the older friends back into my life. My high school reunion reminded me of this reconnection imperative/need most strongly. I liked those friends from 50 years ago but have not kept in touch with most of them – my bad and certainly my loss.

Let me hear from you concerning your experiences with friendships. Do you have any funny friend bonding experiences like my shower room story? Send your thoughts, either via email at boomerbytes@yahoo.com or post them at the end of the column. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.