Casual: (Cupped) Hands Across America

(from the August 9, 2004, Weekly Standard)

MOST WRITERS are desperate to coin a phrase–to tattoo a saying on the body of the English language. I myself don’t suffer from this craving. It so happens I’ve already seen an invention of mine taken up by strangers. By now, in fact, my innovation has been circulating for weeks. You may already be using it (almost certainly without proper attribution).

Like many instances of greatness, my little contribution sprang from modest beginnings. Also, I should mention it’s not entirely original. It is a variation on an existing, well-known rhetorical device, but no one else, to my knowledge, can claim authorship (aside from one language website and the Onion, which Google now tells me both had the same idea not too long ago).

Anyway, without further credit-sharing–cymbals and fireworks, get ready–I give you my new thing: air parentheses. Inspired by air quotes, those low-class hand signals used by annoying people incapable of selective emphasis through simple word choice and intonation, my air parentheses promise to sweep the nation. Subtext, self-contradiction, that leave-’em-laughing (exit stage right) final spin of fine repartee–all this air parentheses make easier.

No, I didn’t realize right away that my coinage might just be the next “Don’t go there.” A couple of friends were visiting. I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but lately I’d been enamored of lines that work as standing contradictions. Example: He’d be a handsome guy if it weren’t for that face. Maybe that’s what inspired me to make my move.

It’s tricky business, this translating punctuation for hands (one wonders how deaf people do it), but in that instant I foresaw what was about to happen: I’d deliver my joke–a contradiction along the lines of “Oh, no I like her a lot (when she’s unconscious)”–as I cupped my hands in front of me to form a dueling pair of facing C’s. One of our friends would ask, “What was that?” Then I’d tell them.

Which is exactly what happened. And our friends loved it. For the next hour or so, we made nothing but undercutting parenthetical asides. And the next day, I forgot the whole thing.

Immortality could so easily have slipped from my grasp.

But a few weeks later, one of our friends–we’ll call her friend number one, for the historic role she was about to play–came to visit again, this time bringing several others. They were all heading out to a concert with my wife, while I was to stay home to watch our child. I was in good-sport mode, icing the beer, and, despite the rain, grilling up some burgers for the gang (most of whom I hadn’t met before). And when I dashed inside with a fresh round of beer, I came upon this gratifying scene.

Friend number one had just given the others a lesson in the use of air parentheses, and all were taking to them like sopranos to the high notes. They were even improving on my repertoire. The basic weakness of my air parentheticals is that, in the wrong hands (!), they might degenerate into a barely updated version of “Not!” that moronic cliché from the ’90s. My new best friends solved this problem by coming up with a huge array of usages: to communicate stage directions, to express subtext, to make passive-aggressive sentiments explicit–“No, you’re the boss (when I’m not here)”–and many, many more.

Particularly nice were some examples in the middle of a sentence: “Yes, I’d like some (scotch and) water.” Oh, we laughed at that one. This, I imagined, is how a playwright must feel hearing his words for the first time rendered by good actors.

These charming people insisted I instantly take measures to broadcast my new figure of (hand) speech. I decided to write an article. The drawback was that mere tens of thousands of people would see it. If only there were a way to showcase my air parentheses on television, on something like American Idol, but for writers. Or an Olympic event for novel locutions. I’m taking suggestions. It seems a shame to just leave my air parentheses to work their way through the population two hands at a time.

Even if you don’t have any suggestions, please feel free to stop me on the street (I’ll be the creative one with the witty hands) and tell me what you really think (!@#$%^&*) of my terrific idea.

–David Skinner


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