Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How Wordsmiths Erode Language

I have a bone to pick; it is a small and insignificant one. Lately in my wandering around reading creative work, poetry, novels and flash, I have run up on a number of occasions where a writer referred to ‘cement’ when what they actually meant was ‘concrete’. This inappropriate usage of the word ‘cement’ drives me just a little bit batty.

I feel each time like I had got some of that wet cement hit in the eyeball.

Not meaning to pick on Chris Middleman in particular, I do not know him, never heard of him until this morning I came across his poem online where he has the line:

“on the bone-white cement”

Cement for at least the last 100 years is the stuff that comes in a bag, as a powder. You mix it with sand and water to make ‘mortar’ and you mix it with sand and water and gravel (aggregate) to make ‘concrete.’

When I make something out of cement it is usually unintentional, like leaving a bag of it out where it gets rained on and turns hard, and pretty much useless. If I am lucky I can bash it with a sledge and turn it into mud puddle fill.

Sidewalks are made out of concrete... yes, there is cement in them, but if the poet walks onto a construction site they will quickly learn that cement is not concrete and sidewalks are not cement. Walls are not cement. Concrete buildings are not cement.

Middleman’s verse is almost like saying, “on the bone-white glue” because cement is the glue of concrete, sort of. Since so many writers say ‘cement’ is it a cliché? Why not say, on the bone-white mastic? Or, on the bone-white avenue?

In The Polish Woman (see me review elsewhere) I remember to imagine in my reading that I ran across 'cement' used at least a half dozen times, and never once an appropriate reference to the intended 'concrete'. Is it that 'concrete' just does not sound poetic? Or is it that poetics, and prose, are disjointed from a sensitive appreciation of modern industrial technology?

I can only begin to be bothered when writers do not bother to connect their metaphors into the reality of the industrial world where stuff like cement comes from. They should get out of whatever room they are sitting in and go visit a cement plant. If we want to have an environmentally conscious literature then it makes sense to know where 'cement' comes from (it begins with a really really big hole in the ground), which understanding may start with a distinction to know what cement is, and what it is not. Cement is not concrete.

The energy consumption in the production of cement is one of a small few critical GLOBAL environmental issues alongside oil and coal. The production of cement is also a top air pollution issue. The Interstate Highway system is made of concrete, as are dams for hydroelectric plants, and that concrete is made with cement, Portland cement to be even more specific, and when the government starts to talk about repairing 'infrastructure' you can bet the market cost of cement goes up.

Because of the cost of transport of heavy materials, like crushed rock on barges, cement plants need to be close to the really ginormous hole in the ground and therefore it is an industry not easily outsourced. The general rule is that a cement plant supplies cement for a 200 mile radius from the plant. The world is dotted with cement plants -- and they are all using massive clumps of energy and they are all exhausting into the air that we breath.

For creative writers to be ignorant of the world, as witnessed by their not even knowing the ramifications of what they say when they say 'cement', amazes me. But, as I said at the start of this rant, it is a small bone to pick. A larger one would be how poets, flashers and novelists ignore science and paint pretty pictures of a world that does not exist... not that I particularly care for the austerity of realism. Hopefully writers all practice intelligent design and we can rest assured in the feelings of faith that they spread with their creative use of words.

It is very rare that concrete would be bone-white. That in itself is a bad observation of color. Usually concrete is a soft gray, and off-white, if old concrete it will be darker in color, maybe, and in an historic district it may have been tinted black, but it is not black, it is only a darker gray. The basic color of concrete is GRAY, not white, not bone.

If you want WHITE concrete then you need to use white cement, and white cement costs a whole lot more than GRAY cement and hardly anyone in their right mind (other than an artiste or a poet slightly disconnected from reality) would ever think to make concrete with white cement, and certainly would not consider to make sidewalks of concrete made with white cement. White concrete in a sidewalk will not remain white for very long.

Now, if we really want to get esoteric let us talk ‘terrazzo’. Hardly ever do we hear from the creative writers about the bone-white terrazzo.