Monday, September 26, 2016

With the Greatest Respect…

Some astute person with one foot on each side of the English Channel (try that sometime and see how comfortable it is) has published a translation guide that may explain why the British chose to exit the European Union: it was all a big misunderstanding. Try as they might, the Brits and their Continental colleagues—or the Americans, for that matter—just don’t speak the same language. This is clear from the following examples:

What the British say:           What the British mean:            What the European hears:

“I hear what you say.”            “I disagree and do not               “He is sympathetic to my      
                                                wish to discuss it further.”          point of view.”

“With the greatest                   “You are an idiot.”                     “He greatly respects me."

“That’s not bad.”                     “That’s bad.”                             “That’s good.”

“Quite good.”                           “A bit disappointing.”               “Very good.”

“Very interesting.”                    “That is clearly nonsense.”       “He is very interested."

“I almost agree.”                       “I do not agree at all.”              “He is close to         

“That is a brave proposal.”       “You are insane.”                      “He thinks I’m courageous.”

“Oh, incidentally…”                   “This is the main point.”           “This is not important.”

“I’m sure it’s my fault.”              “It’s your fault.”                         “Why does he think it's his 

“I’ll bear it in mind.”                  “I have forgotten it already.”       “He’ll almost certainly do it.”

No one has ever understood what the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is saying, and that is not surprising.

            With the greatest respect, I hear what you say,
            I’ll bear it in mind, very good.
            That is not bad, I almost agree…
            How I hope that I’m misunderstood!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Laying It On the Loin

A friend recently asked if I knew the origin and precise meaning of to gird one’s loins, meaning to “prepare for action or for strenuous activity.”

The phrase appears frequently in the Bible, especially the Old Testament. In Exodus  the Lord tells Moses and Aaron how to eat the Passover meal: “And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand.” The Lord tells Job: “Gird up thy loins like a man.”

Almost any material could be used for girding. In I Kings the defeated Syrians “girded sackcloth on their loins” before begging for mercy. In II Kings Elijah is described as “an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins.”  Jeremiah is told: “Go and get thee a linen girdle, and put it upon thy loins.” Daniel has a vision of man “whose loins were girded in fine gold.” 

Gird, derived from Old English geard (“yard, or enclosure”) and Latin hortus (“garden”) means “encircle or bind with a flexible material.” More often than not, it refers to wrapping something around the waist, either for protection or to hold in unwanted flab. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck says “I’ll put a girdle about the earth in forty minutes.”

As for the loins, derived from Anglo-French loigne (“loin’), they are primarily defined as “the parts of a quadruped on each side of the spinal column between the hip bones and the false ribs.” In the human body this is the area within which are contained the reproductive organs, so that by the 16th century the loins referred specifically to the genitalia and, by extension, to a person’s source of physical strength and generative power.

Thus, to gird one’s loins, then, means both:
            1) to cover those parts of the body that modesty would demand, and
            2) to protect those parts as the source of reproduction.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s loins are perpetually girded, since he never knows when he may have to spring into action.

            Her rebuke was was sharply worded
            To the handsome young Apollo:
            “You, sir, keep your distance!”

            For she knew his loins were girded
            And she feared that he would follow
            The loin of least resistance.

Friday, September 16, 2016

“Better Than the Next!”

A recent advertisement from a theatre company promised: “We have a wonderful season for you. Each show is better than the next!”

I hate to say so, but this is hardly an inducement to buy a season ticket—if every performance I attend will be worse than the one I saw last time.

On the other hand, “Each show is better than the last!” (which is what I presume the writer meant to suggest) may promise improvements over the season, which is certainly preferable. But still it makes you wonder why the same level of quality that is promised later in the season could not be achieved from the beginning.

If I were trying to sell as season, I think my slogan would be: “Each show is just as good as every other show!” Now that’s a goal to try to live up to!

As you have no doubt observed, if you are a Constant Reader, the verses of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou are all worse than the last ones.

            A West Indian impresario
            Put on a show in Ontario.
                        But he found the Canadians
                        Not as droll as Barbadians,
            And they yawned throughout his scenario. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Order, Please!

A recent Facebook post pointed out that when multiple adjectives precede a noun, we instinctively put them in a fixed order, depending on their function. First comes the determiner, denoting the number and specific designation of the noun: “a,” “the,” “your,” “some,” “few,” “several,” “fourteen,” “thousands,” etc. Next come adjectives that express an opinion (“good,” “bad,” “wonderful,” “terrible,” etc., followed by adjectives relating to size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose.

For example we might say: My lovely little old curved green French silver whittling knife. Rearranging the order of those adjectives is likely to result in something very peculiar sounding: My old lovely green French little whittling silver curved knife.

Here are some other examples whose word order you may change at your peril!

o   That charming small 18th-century oval dark brown Italian mahogany knick-knack shelf.  

o   Your handsome large new square red English walnut dining table.

o   Three ugly big old round orange German plastic coffee pots.

o   Two dozen useful thick new legal-size yellow Lithuanian parchment note pads.

Of course, this prescribed word order can sometimes be altered to good effect, as in Shelley’s description of George III in his sonnet “England 1819”:   “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows a lot of adjectives, but he has never quite figured out the right order in which to put them:

              A rich, old, fat, and greedy miser
             Grew much older but no wiser.
             And he, when all was done and said,
             Was rich, old, greedy, fat and dead.