I’m no longer keeping track of Presidential gaffes. Try to number the stars or the droplets of Covid-19 still hanging in Tulsa. Too much for the limited mind of man to hold in one lifetime. So, but, how do we avoid pausing in reflection upon witnessing the recent celebration of the signing of the Great American Outdoors Act, a scripted, and yes, fumbling recitation of platitudes which almost obscured the relative enormity of actually getting a bill of any sort through the Senate much less a bill that has to do with the public good. A grand moment for those who believe that the nation’s national treasures are worthy of recognition and support, made yokelish by the mispronunciation of Yosemite, among the first national parks to be established, and perhaps the most celebrated, you know, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, Ansel Adams, those guys.
We know the President goes off script whenever he can, not only to indulge in the fanciful landscape of his counterfactual reality but to avoid stumble bumbling with reading. He’s not the first public figure to mispronounce or manufacture words. Former president George W. Bush is in competition with Yogi Berra for the greatest number of unintended but magically evocative malapropisms. Who has not wished to be the author of, “They misunderestimated me,” as Bush said in Arkansas, or “I just want you to know that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”? I personally have been misunderstimated more times than I can count, and even Tolstoy put war and peace in the same title. No, the twice repeated “Yo-Semite” is of another order of misstatement. Had the President had difficulty and pronounced the park as one would a mineral, Kyanite, or Ammolite, there’d be a few scratched heads, but separating the word as he did, putting an emphasis on Semite, well, that was just not great.
And, of course, the President is not helped by the current use of the “Bro”ist greeting, Yo. The etymology of the use of Yo as a salutation is entirely up for grabs. I ran into a fellow who argues that Yo is used among the Dravidian languages, and we’d have to travel to the Kasaragod district of Kerala to see if it pops up among those who speak Tulu. I didn’t run into him more than once, but you can see where the problem lies if you believe, as I did, that it popped into contemporary usage when a blooded and sweat laden Rocky Balboa cries out to Adrian, Paulie’s sister — “Yo, Adrian! I did it!” Competing claims come from a variety of sources including veterans of many military roll calls whose “YO” rang clear as an indication of their presence.
No matter how it arrived, we hear a fully articulated Yo as an invitation to turn and greet the speaker. That said, Yo-Semite does invite consideration of a park greeting those of Phoenician, Akkadian, Hebrew, or Arabic lineage, and, since the most common contemporary usage is the term anti-semetic, referring specifically to Jews, and given that there has been the unfortunate description of Nazis as among the good people on both sides arriving in Charlottesville, we can be forgiven for indulging in some snide-lite questioning of the President’s remarks.
A sign of the times? To be sure, as is the struggle of the online store of the American Museum of American Jewish History to keep up with demand for the Yo Semite T shirt they have sold for years, “reminiscent of the shirts your own beloved summer camp provided”. I find myself strangely moved and heartened by evidence that humor and resilience still endures after the relentless thumping of the past four years. As I sit in isolation, the purchase of new clothing has not been a priority, but my shirt is backordered and will appear on zoom screens wherever I travel as a statement of faith in the human spirit to rise above the tumult.