Thursday, April 29, 2010

Recumbent Lie vs. Setdown Lay

In this corner, the reigning intransitive champion of the English-speaking world, Recumbent Lie. And in the opposite corner, the feisty challenger, the transitive champion, Setdown Lay. Lay has been trying to overcome Lie since the 14th century and is making great headway. According to Bryan Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, the use of lay when lie is correct is the most frequent mistake made in the English language.  Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is almost (but not quite) prepared to throw in the towel: “Some commentators,” says the lexicon, “are ready to abandon the distinction.”  But it cautions, “…even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.” 

In the simplest terms lie means “to recline” or “or to be situated.”  People and objects may both lie: You lie on the floor of the saloon. The empty whisky bottle lies next to you. Lay means “to put or set [something] down.” One may lay both people and objects: I will pick you up and lay you on the sofa.  Then I will lay the whisky bottle on the bar. 

The confusion between the two is caused by how the verbs are declined. (For a definition of decline, see The Decline and Fall of the Woman Umpire.) The past tense of lie is lay, and the past participle is lain.  Lay’s past tense and past participle are both laid.  So if you lie on the floor in the present, and lay on it in the past—some people will naturally, though incorrectly, assume that you can lay on it the present as well. 

Both Messrs. Lie and Lay, by the way, hope that you will not confuse them with other similar-sounding verbs.  Prevaricating Lie, whose past tense and past participle are both lied, does not even stem from the same root as Recumbent Lie.  And Setdown Lay’s cousin, the disreputable Getz Laid, has been disowned by the family as too vulgar for words.

Ken Lay and Frito-Lay do not enter into this discussion.   

Always eager to add to the confusion, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou hopes these
demonic, mnemonic verses will be just the ticket:

            The lazy farmer’s wife declared, “You layabout—
            Get up, go buy a chicken coop on layaway.
            Don’t lie to me about the cash that you lay out,
            My hens must have a decent place to lay.”
            I was laid up, so I lay down           
            To lie low while I was sick.
            My boss rang up to lay me off,
            And I laid it on quite thick.
            But still my boss laid into me--
            That made me worse, no doubt.
            Now on my tomb engraved you’ll see:
            “Laid up, laid low, laid off, laid out.”

Monday, April 26, 2010

Uncommon Language

Poet Dana Gioia, former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, has a new book on British poetry called Barrier of A Common Language.  The title comes from a famous comment made by Dylan Thomas.

Differences in British and American vocabularies are legion.   You’re familiar with many of them: lift/elevator, biscuit/cookie, potato crisps/potato chips, chips/French fries, petrol/gasoline, lorry/truck, and on and on.  The differences are so many that you have to wonder how this “barrier of a common language” is ever overcome.

But who was it that first came up with this epigram about that barrier?  Was it Thomas?  Or Winston Churchill, who is often credited with the remark?  Or George Bernard Shaw, who is cited in a dictionary of quotations for having said something similar?  Or was it that epigrammatist par excellence Oscar Wilde?  Apparently, it was all of them.

A  blogger in England, who writes under the name Scriptor Senex (the Old Man Writer), posted this meticulously documented clarification:

            Sometimes the inquirer asks, ‘Was it Wilde or Shaw?’ The answer appears to be: both. In The Canterville Ghost (1887), Wilde wrote: ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’. 

            However, the 1951 Treasury of Humorous Quotations (Esar & Bentley) quotes Shaw as saying: ‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language’, but without giving a source.  The quote had earlier been attributed to Shaw in Reader’s Digest (November 1942).

            Much the same idea occurred to Bertrand Russell (Saturday Evening Post, 3 June 1944): ‘It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language’, and in a radio talk prepared by Dylan Thomas shortly before his death (and published after it in The Listener, April 1954) - European writers and scholars in America were, he said, ‘up against the barrier of a common language’.

            Inevitably this sort of dubious attribution has also been seen: ‘Winston Churchill said our two countries were divided by a common language’ (The Times, 26 January 1987; The European, 22 November 1991).

It seems, then, that there are hardly any British writers in the last hundred years who have not said something similar.  Trying desperately to get in on the act, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou wrote the following mid-Atlantic verses:

            A Briton who seemed a bit squiffed
            Tried to board an American lift.
                        But that elevator
                        Was just a dumbwaiter,
            And the Brit wouldn’t fit—catch my drift?
            A Yank who was driving in Soho
            Found that his car wouldn’t go.
                        “Have you got gas?”
                        He asked a young lass,
            Who said, “Yes—but ‘twill pass, don’t you know.” 

            An Englishman said, "I surmise
            When my PC from America dies,
                          And the sounds of its blips
                          Say it needs microchips, 
            Then I'll give it a small side of fries."


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lost in Translation

Why Translation Matters is a new book by Edith Grossman, a noted translator of Spanish literature, most famous for Cervantes’ Don Quixote in 2003.  One of her theses is that fidelity to the original work demands that the translator avoid word-for-word literal translation and, in effect, create an entirely new piece of literature.

The pitfalls of literal translation can be easily seen by anyone who relies upon on-line translation services.  As an experiment filled with merriment, I used three different on-line services to translate a passage from English to Spanish; then using the word-for-word Spanish translation I asked the same service to translate it back to English.  The results differ markedly.

The original is an excerpt from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies: 

To be, or not to be, that is the question.  Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. 
Alta Vista’s Babelfish, finishing in a distant third place, renders it thus:  

To be or not to be, that one is the question.  If he is noble in the mind to undergo the slings and you shoot with an arrow of the indignant fortune or to take the arms against a sea from hardships and being been against, terminate them.

ImTranslator gives us:  

To be or not to be, it is the question. If 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and the arrows of the scandalous fortune, or to take weapon against a sea of problems, and contravening, finish them.
Only Google came up with an English-Spanish-English version that was pretty close to the original:  

To be or not be, that is the question.  If nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.
I take the experiment further in my book Words Gone Wild, which, Deo favente, will soon be an intruder in the dust of every bookshelf in America.  “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” as you will learn if you read the book, comes through the permutations of several languages as: 

          Mary had the small lamb, 
          Its quilts was beautiful like snow, 
          And this Mary went, 
         The ewe-lamb everywhere was exactly suits him.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who regards the crass promotion represented by the previous paragraph as unspeakable gaucherie, prefers this version of “Mary”:

            Mary had a little lamb,
            Potatoes, and mint jelly,
            Pickles, slaw, and deviled ham
            She brought home from the deli.
            A tummy-ache made Mary weep.
            She cried, “How sick I am!”
            Then, like Bo-Peep, who lost her sheep,
            Mary lost her lamb.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mad as a Dormouse?

Why is it that the “Mad Hatter” gets such a bad rap?  In fact, he was no madder than anyone else at the March Hare’s Mad Tea Party—or in all of Wonderland, for that matter.  In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice that the March Hare and the Hatter are both mad.  In fact, says the Cat, “we’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.”  And yet it’s only the Hatter, not the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, or the Dormouse, who is always mentioned with the sobriquet “mad.”  In fact, we sometimes use the idiom “mad as a hatter.”

Over the years the Hatter has been brought to life by a variety of impersonators, including  Ed Wynn, Edward Everett Horton, Hedda Hopper, Martin Short, Anthony Newley, and now, to satisfy the myriad literary scholars who have been clamoring for his interpretation, Johnny Depp. Most characterizations portray “mad” as “eccentric,” rather than “angry,” but the phrase “mad as a hatter” is used to mean both.

The idiom predates Alice in Wonderland, by nearly thirty years at least. It was used in Thomas Halliburton’s The Clockmaker, published in 1837.  The origin of the phrase is unclear.  Some say it was originally “mad as an adder.” Webster says “hatter” is just an intensifier, probably used because it rhymes (sort of) with madder.  Pat Ryan in a recent New York Times article suggests half-heartedly that the original phrase was adapted from the French il raisonne comme un huître—“he reasons like an oyster.” 

The best bet by most etymologists is that the phrase derived from the fact that hatmakers in the nineteenth century used mercurious nitrate to cure felt, and the constant exposure to the substance gave them what were called “hatter’s shakes,” uncontrollable twitching, and in severe cases, blurred vision, slurred speech, and hallucinations.  Hence, if someone acted strangely or violently, that person was said to be “mad” (in whatever sense) “as a hatter.”

Those who move in poetic circles (even though they may become somewhat dizzy) are familiar with another idiom—“bad as the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.”  Here’s why.

               Mad as a hatter,
            Blind as a bat,
            Sad as a batter
            Whose average is flat.

            Light as a feather,
            Smart as a fox,
            Tougher than leather,
            Strong as an ox,

            Deaf as a post,           
            Drunk as a lord,
            White as a ghost,
            Stiff as a board,

            Big as a house,
            Hard as a brick,
            Quiet as a mouse,
            Tight as a tick,

            Slow as a snail
            Clear as a bell,           
            Thin as a rail,
            Hotter than hell,
            Trite as a simile
            That’s now a cliché,
            Yet soldiers on grimly,
            As plain as the day.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Who Is Whom?

Which of these sentences using who and whom, both of which appeared recently in The New York Times, is incorrect?

1.    Mr. Bashi said he was charmed by Ms. Vicens, whom he said was at once “sophisticated and intellectual” and yet “didn’t take herself too seriously.”

2.    The admiral who Johnson was questioning assured him that the military does not anticipate any island-toppling.

Answer: both of them are wrong. It’s that who-whom thing again.  Simply put, who is always in the nominative case and functions as the subject of a verb, and whom is always in the objective case and must be the object of a verb or preposition.

The use of whom instead of who in a subordinate clause every time a verb follows is tempting—but it must be heroically resisted until you have determined if it is correct. The writers of both sentences above fell into traps—the first by carelessly thinking that whom is the object of he said, and the other by over-correcting such a potential mistake and assuming that who is the subject of assured.

I’m going to let Byron A. Garner, who I am willing to bet makes more money writing about words than I do, explain it.  In the Dictionary of American Usage, he writes:

“The correct uses of who are sometimes tricky.  But if the pronoun acts as the subject of a clause, it must be who, never whom—e.g.: ‘Alan Alda, who you quickly realize is sorely missed on TV, stars as Dan Cutler…’ (Who is the subject of is.)"

Thanks, Mr. Garner.  That explains No. 1 above, in which he said is a parenthetical expression inserted between the pronoun and the verb was, of which who should be the subject. But why is who in No. 2 wrong?  If you look closely, you will see that who is not the subject of assured, as it might first seem. The subject is admiral, and “who [read whom] Johnson was questioning” is an adjectival clause modifying admiral, in which whom should be in the objective case as the direct object of was questioning.  

All this palaver has hopelessly confused the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whom you all know and who you all know is easily addled.
      ‘Twixt her and she, or him and he,
      Or them and they, or us and we,
      I neither fret nor fume.
      But there’s one thing I cannot say:     
      If Doctor Who should come my way,
            Would I meet Doctor Whom? 

Monday, April 12, 2010

Of ‘The’ I Sing

A regular customer of this blog, commendably eager for practical knowledge, has pointedly asked why it is that the British omit the definite article “the” before certain words, while Americans do not.  For example, if someone in London is helping a Harley Street surgeon pay for his yacht, that person is “in hospital”; but doing the same for a Park Avenue doctor in New York will put the American “in the hospital.”  Americans also speak of events occurring “in the future” while Brits tend to say “in future.”  Why is that?

The real question is why Americans are so inconsistent as to include “the” before words like “hospital” and “future,” and omit it before “school,” “church,” “court,” and other words of that kind. Well, as the Sage of Concord once confided to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, consistency is the “hobgoblin of little minds.”

Another Sage (of Baltimore), the curmudgeonly H. L. Mencken, suggests that the habit of using “the” before certain nouns came to the New World from the Irish, who picked it up from the French, who put la or le, and the Germans, who insist on der, die or das, before most nouns. Don’t ask why; that’s just the way it is.  In French, War and Peace is La guerre et la paix; likewise the German title of Karl Marx’s Capital is Das Kapital.  In his 1919 tome The American Language, Mencken says: “An Irishman does not say, ‘I am good at Latin,’ but ‘I am good at the Latin.’  In the same way an American does not say ‘I had measles’ but ‘I had the measles.’”

The British textbook High School Grammar and Composition by Wren and Martin (a couple of fine old English birds by the sound of it) states that the definite article should be avoided before words like church, school, hospital, college, university and bed (!), when these are referred to for their primary purpose.  Americans and British follow the same rule—mostly: We go to church, we go to school, and we go to bed—all without benefit of “the.”  The article “the” should be used, say the birds, when referring to the same nouns as objects, e.g. we contribute to the church, we build the school, we make the bed.

But the British themselves don’t always follow Wren and Martin’s rule.  Just to confuse things even more, both Yanks and Brits go to the theatre, the ballet, and the opera; but while Americans watch TV, the British watch the telly.

Bard of Buffalo Bayou, when not in a church, in a school, in a hospital, or on a toot, pens scraps of drivel, one of which follows:

            Hail to The, a useful article!
            From top to end, in every particle!
            Perhaps The’s greatest claim to fame
            Is that it is the middle name
            Of many folks in history’s pages.
            To name a few, down through the ages:
            Ivan The Terrible, Louis The Fat,
            Alfred The Great, Maggie The Cat,
            Minnie The Moocher, Edward The Confessor,
            Richard The Lionheart, Ajax The Lesser,
            John The Baptist, Jack The Ripper
            Billy The Kid, George The Gipper
            Kermit The Frog, Winnie The Pooh,
            William The Conqueror, Pepe Le Pew
            I could go on longer and name some more,
            But that’s quite enough from Bard The Bore.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Weep No More

A British customer of this blog writes with a query about the phrase “Jesus wept”—not as the shortest verse in the King James Bible (John 11:35), but as an expletive expressing annoyed surprise.  It’s a phrase that’s been in use at least since the customer’s childhood, when he heard his father use it, and that was a half-century ago (or, to be honest, a little bit more). 

Despite the Biblical injunction against taking the Lord’s name in vain, the name of Jesus Christ (or variants such as “Jesus H. Christ,” “Geez,” “Sheesh,” and “fer Crissakes”) has been used an exclamation by plenty of Christians, as well as others, for centuries, if not millennia.  A few examples will more than suffice: “Bi iesus” in Piers Plowman (1377),  “By Jhesu” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (ca. 1390), “O Jesu” in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 (1597) and “By Gis” in Hamlet (1601).

“Jesus wept,” as an expletive, is apparently of much later vintage. In James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) Stephen Dedalus exclaims “O weeping God,” and later in the same passage says, “Jesus wept: and no wonder, by Christ.”  Whether “Jesus wept” in this case is an interjection or simply a declarative statement may be open to interpretation.

In A Vision of Battlements (1965) Anthony Burgess writes dialogue that clearly uses the phrase as an expression of exasperation: “Oh, Ennis, oh God Almighty, Ennis.  What the hell’s got into you these last few weeks?  Oh, Jesus wept, what am I going to do with you?”

It is primarily in Great Britain, Australia, and certain parts of Ireland that “Jesus wept” is used in this fashion, but it is also found in works by the American novelist Stephen King. And an American blogger recalls that when his grandmother would trip on something, she would cry out, “Jesus wept, Moses crept, and Peter went a-fishin’!”.

Like Niobe, the lachrymose Bard of Buffalo Bayou has also wept in his time, although he tries not to, since tears falling into his Chardonnay make it taste salty.  Instead he vents his emotions in cloying and often incomprehensible rhymes:

            Crying when milk’s
            Spilt in your tepee
            Helps, I presume— 
            Just like John Wilkes
            Booth getting weepy
            At Lincoln’s tomb. 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Of Time and the Riviera

Ah, the joys of the Riviera!  Be it French, Italian, or Mexican, it beckons to us with warm, foam-flecked waters lapping gently at our toes; sun-drenched beaches, strewn with lithe, lightly clad bodies; and tall, soothing drinks, sipped sybaritically under the shady comfort of gaudy umbrellas advertising Campari, Pernod, or Carta Blanca.  Enough of such daydreaming!  The class will come to order for a serious question: why is it called “the Riviera”?

It’s an Italian word, dating from the seventeenth century, meaning “coastline,” ultimately from the Latin riparia (“riverbank”). The first area identified as a “Riviera,” was in Italy, a narrow stretch of land in Liguria, from La Spezia in the east to Ventimiglia in the west.  It includes such famous ports as Portofino, Rapallo, San Remo, and Genoa, which is in the Italian Riviera’s center. 

In the nineteenth century English vacationers flocked to France's Côte d’Azur (or "blue coast"), so named by  Stéphen Liégeard in his 1887 book of that title, in reference to the color of the Mediterranean Sea.  Before long, the name Riviera was applied, not only to the Italian Mediterranean coast, but also to the French, from Menton, near the Italian border westward to Hyères, and including Monte Carlo, Nice, Cap d'Antibes, Cannes, and Saint-Tropez.

While “Riviera” simply means coastline, it came to imply a string of luxurious winter resorts.  Hence the Mexican Pacific coastline, from Cabo San Lucas to Acapulco, including Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta, came to be known as the “Mexican Riviera.”  The connotation of a “string of glittering resorts” may be conflated with the French word rivière, which is a necklace of diamonds.

Caught thumbing through a stack of well-worn travel folders, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is a real homebody, expressed his latent wanderlust in this ditty:

            If I were on the Riviera,
            Where all the glitterati go,
            I might run into Yogi Berra,
            Brigitte Bardot, or Jeanne Moreau.

            If I were there in Nice or Cannes,
            I might meet that guy Sarkozy.
            We’d sip Champagne, admire Cézannes,
            Reveling in la vie en rosy.

            If I were on the Riviera,
            I’d wear a tiny string bikini,
            I’d feel as young as Michael Cera
            And look as old as Toscanini.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

High and My Tea

The dining room of a de luxe American hotel, into which I inadvertently stumbled, advertised in engraved script on a gold-colored placard that between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. it would serve “Royal High Tea.”  Scholarly research insisted that I find out precisely what this enticing afternoon refreshment was, and it turned out to be an astonishing array of food and beverage that included a pot of tea (Indian, Chinese, Earl Grey, or herbal); thin, crustless sandwiches of cucumber-and-butter, ham-and-butter, smoked-salmon-and-butter, and (surprise!) prosciutto-and-butter; five kinds of cake (fruit, sponge, pound, chocolate, and an unidentifiable grayish one); cream puffs; chocolate éclairs; and—the pièce de résistance—scones studded with raisins and slathered with whipped cream and strawberry preserves—all served from tiered stands onto fine china by a cadre of white-gloved waiters in gold-braided epauleted uniforms.

When I attended an English university many, many moons ago, I frequently enjoyed High Tea.  It wasn’t described as “royal,” however, and it usually consisted of a cup of tepid tea with milk, a hard fried egg, chips, baked beans on toast, and bangers (that’s what British sausages are called, owing to their high water content that often makes them explode when cooked).

Why the difference between the “royal” American high tea and my rather more commonplace English high tea?  It stems from a misinterpretation (guess by whom) of the word high. 

High, a word that we got, of all places, from Lithuania (kaukaras, “hill”), has taken on a versatile range of meanings, including “lofty, expensive, tipsy, rotten, malodorous, forcible, extreme, shrill, loud, serious, abstruse, and liturgically elaborate,” but the two meanings that have confused American tea-sippers are “principal” and “luxurious.” 

Tea, in England, is not only a drink, but also a light meal, which typically includes bread and butter, biscuits (cookies), and, if you’re lucky, cake, crumpets, or scones.  This ordinary afternoon tea differs from “high tea” (so-called at least since 1831), which is a principal meal, specifically one that includes meat, and is eaten in the late afternoon, taking the place of both afternoon tea and dinner.  Americans might call it supper. High tea is probably not often served at Buckingham Palace, and the phrase “royal high tea” I expect would strike most Britons as an absurdity.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou also strikes Britons as an absurdity (as he found out when he tried to strike several Britons).  In days of yore, he used to recite this poetic confection filtered through his tea-stained mustache:

            When you’re in old Blighty,
            And you’re feeling down,
            Be sure to take High Tea
            To banish that frown.

            And when you take High Tea,
            If you spill on your dhoti,
            Just say, “Well, all righty,
            I guess I’ll have Low Tea.”