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Strictly Speaking

Words that aren't Words


For nearly every claim, one exception proves the rule. Proving in the sense originally intended does not mean “establishing” but “testing.” And so it is necessary to include, and admit, a word that has no broadly understood meaning but a word that nonetheless, as Strunk and White might have admitted, works nonetheless. On this encounter we stumble into that area of softening otherwise rigid arguments, tossing out a token bone to those who are unconvinced by the grandeur of evolution or the inevitability of gravity by being able to snatch up this book, open to this page and say, “See, you see that this guy admits right here that he’s all wrong.” Well, that’s what we call misrepresentation, quoting out of context and overinferring evidence that, while real, remains unrepresentative.

Please ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, welcome today’s guest word, so let’s have a warm hand for this Chicago-born native, henkie, aka henke. A regional shibboleth, henkie or henke, pronounced HEN-KEY, with the stress on the first syllable, derives from a nineteenth century politician who rigged elections, siphoned off public funds to his own use, abused public trust to exempt himself from laws and regulations, and believed that every one of his actions was his unabridgable right as an American. Ergo henke became, in application, attached to any deal, situation, analysis or decision that seemed off the square, unreliable and just plain not right.
Without knowing the details, a Chicagoan would sense something wrong even without the benefit of proof, and would react by saying, “That’s henke.” As to why henkie or henke works, one needs to break out of the trend of common usage of one size fits all, globally assimilable noise production to realize the underlying charm of words as traditional and regionally colorful as henke.

Henke is a regional prerequisite. It needs to appear in dialogue in order to convince the viewers that this story happened in Chicago because it’s use is so Chicagoan. More so even than the Wacker Drive maze, the Art Institute, the fossils on the Tribune Building. More than a river engineered to flow from the lake rather than into it, not just a river that’s dyed green every year because being Irish enables voters long dead to rise, walk and cast votes, but — in henke – a sound that is, in addition to being flat nasal and matter-of-fact is peppered with words and expressions common in and around Chicago. Sports bars are great, and Mike Ditka was allowed to spit on fans as long as he got the Bears to the Super Bowl and no one now alive believes for a heartbeat that the Bulls will relive another Jordan era and that the former Playboy Mansion is now a hotel behind the famous Drake or that Hugh Hefner went to the University of Chicago and so did Eliot Ness, or that the nuclear age was opened in an abandoned squash court beneath Stagg Field by achieving nuclear criticality by Enrico Fermi on my birthday in 1942, or that the University of Chicago is not merely the only college football team even to escape defeat by Notre Dame and its running back Jay Berwanger is the guy atop the Heisman Trophy, or that JFK was so loved by Catholic and black Chicago that nobody from Dallas could get a cab ride in the city for twenty-five years after his assassination, all of those things and more, where one fan of the Chicago Cubs who caught a foul ball that if played would have sent the Cubbies to the series lived in mortal danger for months afterward, or that Joliet Prison is not Joliet Prison but Stateville, or that Oprah Winfrey is only one of two Oprah Winfreys of identical birthday and approximately that same age in Chicago, but to communicate in the word choice, usage, cadence and manner the conviction that the actors are Chicagoans, not guys from Van Nuys on a shoot near the Wells Street L station.
To do that requires that magical abracadabra suspension of disbelief word, henke. Chicago is a henke kind of city. Historically and by its nature. It’s no big deal, just the way things are.

So suppose you are actually from Van Nuys or West Hollywood or Santa Monica and you want to convert to a denizen of the only truly cosmopolitan city in the Midwest. Aside from sports and bargains, make sure you get in a line with henke in it. It doesn’t matter than nobody outside Chicago knows what is means. Its meaning can be inferred from context and from its inflection and the scowl of confusion on the speaker’s face. Applied to The Fugitive, set in Chicago and featuring a homicidally myopic detective who worked his way into a badge after years taking bribes from motorists on Lake Forest Drive, the innocent man on the run in Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford). When the case against him – no motivation, no evidence becomes so flimsy that no measure of police suspicion and obstruction of justice can hold it together, one of the Federal Marshals working the case says as much to his boss, “Big Dog” Sam Garrard, played in an Oscar-winning performance by Tommy Lee Jones. The other marshal says to Sam Garrard. “I don’t know. It (the case against Kimball) just seems henke.”

There is an obligation of credible local dialog in works of fictions or film to use local dialect to create authenticity, a sense of place. If verisimilitude creates a credible illusion that this exact story can only occur in this exact way because all parts of it, all forces and emotions and expressions are tightly interconnected in a single tightly woven fabric, then the crafting of dialogue is crucial.

And so, within this web, all characters must be true to character. Federal Marshal Sam Garrard, whose intelligence is communicated by his requirement that sentences be as convincing as cases, and that the words are all understood, says back, “What’s ‘henke’?”

The response to his question is a Chicagoan shrug, followed by “You know, henke,” as if it shouldn’t be necessary to explain a heap of dog shit; everyone knows what it is. But Sam Garrard says, “Look, I don’t what you guys using words that aren’t words,” even though the movie is set in Chicago, henke was born in Chicago and lives in the usage of Windy City dwellers who don’t even know why henke is henke. It just IS. And so, for Sam Garrard to ask a coworker with whom he has been working for years in a city where henke RULES is a bit of a stretch.

It is more strange still, Garrard’s response, even had been some bureaucratic twip from Washington, if he were a cop from anywhere, he would still have heard and known henke (or henkie). Without providing the etymology requisite to the Oxford English Dictionary (an oxymoronic tower of sane erudition composed by a certified institutionalized maniac) Linda Tiner claims ( in her unrefereed post “A Little Lesson in Police-ese (sic)” that something is henkie when it doesn’t feel right, or when it leaves too may unanswered questions.

As, in The Fugitive, by failing to question why a loving, loyal husband with no mistress or dalliances would kill his own wife on their anniversary if this suspect, Richard Kimball, has such a reputation as being shrewd, resourceful and unassailable. Why does he make a call from the murder scene when he could far more easily have been alibied at one of the many conferences that he routinely attended, and had plenty of money to hire someone else to do it?

So why doesn’t Sam Garrard associate simply say, “It doesn’t feel right. It leaves too many unanswered questions?” Aside from not being compact and terse, and departing from the pattern of speech expected of cops, try to imagine how many Cyrillic or Chinese subtitles would be required.

Then ask yourself whether those words could be read in the time remaining before the camera cuts away to the next (fast moving scene). Ask basically the same kind or questions that you would have to ask if you were the director, ask what the choice of word use does for verisimilitude and characterization, then ask what the question that the producer would ask: Does it take more or less film, require a greater or fewer number of retakes? Ask whether the choice of words increases or decreases the chances that the actor speaking will fumble his lines.

If the shoe fits and all that. If henke or henkie works, and you’re in Chicago, not Rome. If in addition you live in the world of cops, you make yourself understood by earning your place at the local smorgasbord of sound. In the city of bulls, not the guys at the commodities exchange like Jerry Reinsdorf but the ones that used to arrive by the thousand by train at the stockyards south of the Loop, it’s the windy city, not because of the wind off the Lake but because of their braggadocio bidding for the 1892 Columbian exposition, where first electricity was used by George Westinghouse to light the White City. It’s a steak and potatoes kind of town, with twenty-two ethnic neighborhoods from Albanian to Zambian. Every one of them knows damn well what henke means even if they have not a glimmering how it came about. By the mere way that henke is said, with a look on the face as if you’ve just stepped through canine poop and can’t get it off your shoe, you know that henke can’t be good. You know that you haven’t closed the deal, and in the Second City, the place that burned to the ground and rebuilt from the ashes, that developed the engineering of skyscrapers built on mud, in the city of Big Shoulders, a place where a man could buy a steer for nearly twice as much as he sold its meat for in New York and still make a profit, something needs to be pretty henke to call it henke.

To date, there has been no such thing as superhenke. Henke is the kind of word that has no degrees of being. It exists as an implicit superlative. If with a certain beer it doesn’t get any better than this, for certain situations rating henke, is doesn’t get much worse.

The next time they turn you away for losing your internet-confirmed reservations at Harry Cary’s Restaurant, just say, “Holy Cow! This is really henke.” This is the password, the kind that you used to need to enter the speakeasies during the Al Capone era, when a dozen enemy mobsters celebrated St. Valentine’s Day by eating a hale of lead from Tommy Guns. After hearing “henke,” the waiters at Harry Cary’s will take you in and say, “No problem. We found a table for you.” Read More 
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