My friend Bill Choyke is anti-semantic. Now don't get me wrong--personally he is a wonderful pal and professionally he is a competent reporter in the Washington bureau of the Dallas Morning News. But when he talks, he murders the English language.
* Choyke, feeling frustrated, once confided that, "I just seem to be spinning my heels."
* He once described a wealthy builder as "a real estate mongrel."
* He labeled a Democratic acquaintance a "flaming-heart liberal."
* He once joked that, "You can walk through a field of Ronald Reagan's thoughts and only get your ankles wet."
Listening to Choyke mangle cliches and mispronounce words is great sport for about a dozen of us who first met him 14 years ago at Ohio University, where we worked together on our college newspaper. We treasure what we call "Choykisms," passing them along in a spirit of fun that the master of the malaprop himself, Bill Choyke, takes in good humor.
"I grew up listening to Mayor Daley in Chicago," says Choyke, "but when I came to Washington in 1975, other people knew the English language different--I hate to say better --but different. It was clear that Mrs. Tvergyak didn't teach me all I needed to know about the English language in the eighth grade."
The problem was not Mrs. Tvergyak, says the man who was Choyke's school principal in Mundelein 20 years ago. The problem, recalls John Kazarian, was that Choyke's role models in Chicago's suburbs were not too strong in the grammar and pronunciation departments either. As a young reporter, recalls Kazarian, Choyke first worked for the News- Sun in Waukegan, a town whose mayor wrestled daily with the English language.
"I'm telling you, covering Mayor Sabonjian and city hall in Waukegan had to do something to Bill," says Kazarian today. Choyke grew up surrounded by what Kazarian calls "back-of-the-yards" kind of folks who led Choyke to "write that way, talk that way--he slurs and doesn't enunciate. Give him an English test and he could pass it with the best of colors," says Kazarian, clobbering a clich,e himself. "But to use it, well, nobody here ever uses formal language."
A prisoner of his past, destined to tongue-twist his way through life, Choyke is to the Washington out-of- town press corps what Alexander Haig was to the striped-pants set: a connoisseur of corn who misuses fancy words when smaller ones would suffice.
When someone surpassed him in something, Choyke remarked to a friend, "He ellipsed me in that area." He once confessed to "overlistening to someone's conversation." He prefaced an explanation with the warning, "You might find my wordology misleading." When someone was fired, Choyke pronounced him "extinct in terms of his job." On his football skills as a child: "I used to be a very precise short-term passer." On the marriage of a young woman to a much older man: "That's financial comfortability."
The list seems endless. Before his maiden trip to southern California, he observed, "From what little I know about myself, I think I'm going to like Los Angeles." He once asked a waitress for a bloody mary that was not spicy this way: "Make mine sort of mediocre." On going to an optometrist: "I don't want to get the wrong prescription if, in fact, my eyes have disimproved." Reconstructing a conversation: "Now, I'm going to misparaphrase him."
Choyke, who specializes in military affairs reporting for the Dallas Morning News here, knows that what comes out of his mouth isn't always pretty.
"I've thought about this," he says, "and I think basically it's being of a high energy-- my mind is quicker than my tongue. Occasionally I'll throw one in just to loosen people up or to get the joke, but that happens less frequent than the natural flow of words."
Sometimes a Choykism creeps into his writing. In a profile of Rita Jenrette a couple of years ago, Choyke reported that on the campaign trail the congressman's wife was a "real trooper." And he noted that with her husband's Abscam and drinking problems, she'd apparently begun living life "in the shattered lane."
The shattered lane?
"It meant that life in the fast lane had broken apart, had shattered," says Choyke. "I thought everybody knew what that meant. Now, the 'trooper,' call it lack of knowledge, call it an oversight--the editors just missed it. Occasionally I write them and less occasionally they get in. Of course, I've always thought I was surrounded by good editors making me look good. But dating back since college, I've found editors just didn't have an appreciation for Choykisms."
Sometimes, of course, you have to hear a Choykism to appreciate it, like the time he praised romance by saying "it would be nice to be enveloped in love." Except he pronounced "envelope" like . . . well, you can guess. Usually, though, a Choykism is straightforward, such as:
* "We saw each other across the room and made facial contact--she smit me."
* "The temperature is going to be in the high 30s or early 40s."
* "Jimmy Carter was criticized for diminishing rising expectations."
* "You didn't tell me (your boyfriend) was double-timing you."
* "This evens up for any loose- lipisms I've had in the past."
* "Is the expression 'driven on' or 'driven by your bootstraps?'"
It might appear odd that someone who breaks so many rules of grammar and usage chooses to making a living as a journalist, a specialty that requires some attention to wordcraft. But it's said that we often work so hard to overcome our weaknesses that we wind up specializing in that very subject that causes us so much aggravation. Clumsy people labor to become dancers, stutterers become great orators and sickly youths become bodybuilders. So it would appear with Choyke, who knows life was not meant to be easy. Or, as he once put it, "It's a doggy-dog world."