Column: It's not as bad as it sounds
A Lenoir resident might on first impulse be angry with writer Julian Turner for his characterization of Lenoir.
His choice of words, in a business story he wrote for New Statesman magazine, “How Google is changing small-town America,” would not be ones that the Economic Development Commission or Caldwell Chamber of Commerce would embrace.
In the story, Turner wrote, “Nestled in the shadow of the iconic Blue Ridge mountains is the unassuming backwater of Lenoir, North Carolina.”
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. It sounds a little condescending. But if you analyze the language, it changes your perspective.
Take “backwater.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “water backed up in its course by an obstruction, an opposing current, or the tide,” or else, “a body of water (as an inlet or tributary) that is out of the main current of a larger body.”
Symbolically, Lenoir is a little backed up by an obstruction, otherwise known as the economy. And if you have ever had to bring a job candidate here, it’s hard to deny that we’re a little "out of the main current” of travel.
Besides, backwaters are quiet and tranquil. They gurgle instead of rush. Their gentleness eases your mind. Backwaters are where you find the great blue heron slowly hunting in the grasses. They are where you paddle a canoe lazily and watch for red-shouldered blackbirds stirring in the otherwise still brush nearby.
So “backwater,” though usually used as a pejorative, has some positive connotations, properly defined.
And look on the bright side: He didn’t say “jerkwater,” a term for a place that’s remote and unimportant or trivial. To not be unimportant implies that in some ways you must be important.
Worse still would have been a word such as used in the overwrought opening of Turner’s story, which referred to a fictional Texas town as “flyblown,” a word meaning covered in fly eggs (or maggots).
Turner also modified the noun backwater with “unassuming,” which the dictionary says is a fancier term for “modest.” That’s a compliment. To be unassuming or modest means the town doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, the people are polite and welcoming, not prideful and off-putting.
To be “assuming” or immodest would mean we’re putting on airs, getting above our raising or being boastful, even brazen. Long ago “immodest” used to be one of the euphemisms used in polite company for a young woman who bared too much of her body as though it were for sale; in impolite company the word used might have been “trollop.” A trollop of a town would be showy, shiny, brassy, loud, painted up and dressed down, in a hurry for action and with a lust for money.
No, if I have a complaint with Mr. Turner’s phrasing, it’s that it’s hackneyed, redundant and cliché. If you tell me a place is a backwater, am I going to envision a mini Las Vegas strip? A downtown filled with gilded 20-story buildings? No. I’m going to assume it’s unassuming. That’s why it’s a backwater.
The article essentially is an over-intellectualized journal entry about the pace of change and what that is doing to small towns. In his very first sentence, Turner uses “elegiac,” meaning “expressing sorrow, often for something now past." It’s a word I would rather writers not use if they want to be understood, since most folks have to look it up, but it certainly applies to how many residents feel about what the economy has done to this area’s major employers.
Turner concludes: “Google is … transforming the town of Lenoir into a living monument to the accelerated pace of technological change that has characterized post-war American life and industry.”
That change is happening everywhere, backwaters and main currents alike. I saw it in Richmond too – it even took my job.
Maybe it’s just more noticeable here because the waters are still enough that you can see what’s changing.