Temper, temper

I love Bill Bryson, I think because I love the English language. The strongest bond I have with my friend is one of language, which doesn’t really separate us from most of the rest of the world, but we all value a turn of phrase so highly that comments from years in the past have lingered like remembered touchdown passes or choir competitions. We re-tell the same linguistic pirouettes the way some other people might watch Sportscenter highlights, and some of the better quips have lasted decades.

Sometimes I’ll get a word stuck in my craw, something that I think Ian does as well, and it just stays in there getting chewed. I remember we had a long conversation, Ian and I, about words like nevertheless and wherewithal, these words that just drip with age. When they’re sprinkled in a sentence, it’s like biting into an au gratin and finding aged parmesan melted in the middle.

The word “temper” is sitting with me now. I lost my temper last night a little bit, and the realization of that gave me, more than anything, a little word to chew on.

More often than not, and this is just for me, “temper” is used for eggs, which is strange as that is the first definition in the dictionary. “To modify by the addition of an agent or quality, to moderate” You temper eggs so they won’t scramble, you temper steel to make it harder by heating it and cooling it, you can temper your wisdom, your judgements, your actions.

But if I were forced to think about the word, the meaning that resonates with me most (pardon the pun) is musical. Most of our instruments are tempered now, they have been built on 12 tone scales and have been assigned pitches. The frets on a guitar, the keys on a piano, are reflections of tempering.

Temper, if you were to ask most people, probably has more to do with anger and rage. If someone were to rant and rave, you would say they were in a foul temper, or that they simply had a “temper”. My “rants” as they are called now, were called “temper-tantrums” when I was child.

There’s a hell of a piece of language. “Temper-tantrums”. If I didn’t love my family as much as I already do, I’d fall in love all over again.

So, this is a word that has to do with making food, making music, and screaming about the iniquities of life. It’s like they made a word for me and my family. All we do is make food, make music, or bitch.

But as I read the meanings in the dictionary, at the bottom there is the archaic meaning. “A compromise between extremes. A middle course.” There was a time when you spoke of a temper as the action which is most in tune with your surroundings, the one that won’t scramble anyone’s eggs, the one that requires no screaming banshee middle-of-the-night cell phone harrangues from your older brother.

It is the meaning that isn’t used anymore, way at the bottom, a meaning that is buried under all the other contractions and shifts in pronunciation. It’s the opposite of the way the word has been working all these years, and it feels strange and wrong and hard. So, I promise, I won’t try to convince anyone to use it that way more than once in a great, great while.

Please, if that mystical middle ground is found, let’s go right back to the cooking and the music and, most importantly, the talking about where it hurts as quickly as possible. I’m along for the ride no matter what happens.