I am a reader. I would not venture to estimate how many books I have read since I was a lad in Greenfield, but I dare say it is in the thousands. Since July 28, I have read five books, two on the long search for, and killing of, Osama bin Laden, one a collection of Elmore Leonard Western stories, a short fiction called “Wake Me When It’s Over” and one written by a lady who was a child in a Japanese Internment Camp in Wyoming during World War II.
At the present time I am making my way through a tome from Reader’s Digest Books called “A Treasury of American Humor”; I am now in the section “Pardon My Language: Linguistic Lapses,” and it is quite an amusing look at communication.
Obvious miscommunications take place between speakers of different languages, this we know. But sometimes little misunderstandings have widespread impact on language. For example, when Captain Cook came across Australia for the first time he saw these strange creatures and told his sailors to ascertain the name of them; he was told that when asked the natives replied they were “kangaroos.” Years later it was discovered that when asked the natives replied kangaroo, meaning “What the heck did you just say?” What the animal’s name is in the native tongue is unknown to English speakers.
Here’s another one: An American gentleman traveling solo on an Atlantic Ocean liner entered the dining room and sat at a table occupied by a man from France, also traveling alone, and as he did the Frenchman rose, bowed and said “Bon Appetit,” whereupon the American bowed and replied “Goldberg” and sat down. The same thing happened the next two nights in a row.
The American, somewhat frustrated, told the ship’s activity director the story, saying every night the man gives his name and I give mine and we sit and eat. The director asked the Frenchman’s name and when told explained it was not a name but meant “have a pleasant meal.” At the next dinner the American approached the table, bowed to the gentleman and said “Bon Appetit,” and the other rose, bowed and said “Goldberg.”
Here are a couple of my favorites: A company experimenting with artificial intelligence during the Cold War developed a “brain” that could translate from English into Russian with hopes it would bring the two cultures together. The first entry was designed for Russian Christians and read thus, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” It raised some eyebrows when the translation came out, “The whiskey is agreeable, but the meat has gone bad.”
And this: An American soldier fell for a Japanese girl while stationed overseas and finally got permission from her parents to call on her. He found a translator and when he arrived at the girl’s home he said, “I am tickled to death to be here today.” The girl and her family were shocked to hear the translation, which came out, “This poor man scratches himself until he dies, only to be with you.”
Some writers, which is the class of human most involved with words next to the teachers that taught them to write, seek to alter the normally accepted definition of words; here are some examples: Minor operation: One performed on somebody else. Opportunist: Anyone who goes ahead and does something you always intended to do. Secret: Something you tell one person at a time. Diet: A short period of starvation preceding a gain of five pounds. Compromise: A deal in which two people get what neither of them wanted. Apology: Politeness too late. Mummy: An Egyptian pressed for time.
Words are used to describe a person, place or thing; these are called adjectives. It is an anomaly that at one time the word “economy” described a large box of cereal and at the same time was applied to small automobiles.
A column or two ago I wrote about riding a bicycle here in King City, and I should like to add to that by saying how much better riding is on streets that are nice and smooth; and many that are rough are getting made smooth thanks to City Staff endeavors. Recently I really enjoyed cruising up Livingston, and across Legacy and Ermosa, then to Davina and Victoria and finally Brandywine. Nice, smooth streets. Don’t know where those streets are? Well, they are here, trust me.
A dear reader mentioned to me that last week’s column was not particularly a rosy, optimistic view of the country and its future, but instead introduced the idea that America is headed for a democratic breakdown. That is true to a point, but as a student of history I can with a great amount of confidence that such will not be the case; we have overcome internal disruption before and came out the other side stronger than ever.
One event in our country’s history includes the Bonus Army March in July 1932. A collection of 43,000 gathered in Washington, D.C.; 17,000 were service veterans of World War I, the rest relatives and concerned groups among which were rumored communist sympathizers. Their demand was early payment of military bonuses because most had been unemployed for three years and felt the government wasn’t doing enough for those who fought in The Great War.
They built shantytowns and occupied some government buildings, doing considerable damage to some. The Washington, D.C., police clashed with the marchers and two veterans were shot and died. The U.S. Army was then called in and cleared all protesters from government land, burning the squatters’ shacks to the ground. Both the veterans killed in the riot were buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
In the late 1960s there were six deaths, all students, at the hands of either police or National Guard and hundreds beaten in riots over America’s involvement in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. During both of these times, America teetered on the brink of chaos and anarchy. We survived.
Take care. Peace.