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MARK MY WORDS
3/6/2010 10:06:04 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

I often attend writers’ seminars and meetings where various scribes and journalists congregate to brag about their latest linguistic conquests and to swap sundry lies about their agents’ or publishers’ idiosyncrasies; all I usually come away with is self-annoyance for wasting so much precious time.

Convinced at last that English is arguably the most difficult language to master, I am constantly in awe of foreigners who can write and converse in a jargon that is often alien to us Americans who have been exposed to it all our lives.

What is most disturbing is that all I know is that I don’t know nuthin yet!

For nearly eight decades I have struggled with vocabulary, spelling, grammar, syntax and every known exigency of our peculiar brand of communication, and sometimes I think it’s all been for naught.

Vocabulary seems to be our biggest downfall. We can grasp the innuendos of grammar fairly well, and with syntax we usually put words in the right order, but the average American can use and accurately define only about a hundred actual words—which, sadly, he uses over and over again until even the most necessary fall into the broom closet of common clichés.

How many people do you know who can do the New York Times Crossword Puzzle with a pen? . . .I thought so. . . .Well, I know one—and I’m married to her. My wife of many years, though possessing none of the discipline inherent in professional word smithyness, knows and can define (as well as accurately spell) more than 82,349 English words of the 457,492 in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Do you realize that is nearly 18% of our entire language!

"The statistics of English are astonishing. Of all the world's languages, which now number some 2,700, it is [unquestionably] the richest in vocabulary,” stated the late etymologist, William Safire. “The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words; and a further half-million technical and scientific terms remain uncatalogued.” According to traditional estimates, the German vocabulary has about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000.

The average college educated writer can claim, on a good day, roughly .02%. Those who scraped by in high school (my peers) get by with a mathematically skimpy collection containing too many zeroes for this short blog.

(Do you really care? I think you do; you’ve read this far.)

The point is, do most of the words and phrases used by us Great Unwashed really end up, by repetition, becoming clichés? Sadly, it must be true.

Reflect on how things used to be: there was a time when people used human urine to tan animal skins. Entire families got together and peed all day in a specified pot. As the sun was setting, the old man would take the pot and sell it at the local tannery. If circumstances forced you to this indignity, you were considered “piss poor.”

But it didn’t stop there . . . .If you were really down on your luck and too broke to buy a pot, your neighbors would say you “didn’t have a pot to piss in.” (The lack of “a window to throw it out of” was, I assume, taken for granted.)

Ever wonder why people want to get married in June? Climb in the shower and start grousing because the water is too tepid. It’s a historical fact that in olden times folks bathed just once a year, usually in May—and they still smelled okay in June. Ah, love in bloom! Even so, most brides were starting to get a little raunchy, so they decided to carry a bouquet to ward off any encroaching B.O. Thanks to FTD, the idea caught on.

Baths back in those days, they tell me, were great fun. A big tub was filled with hot water. Dad (or grandpa, depending who ran the show) got first dibs on the nice clean water. Then when he was through with the rubber ducky and soap-on-a-rope, other male members of the clan had a go at it. Finally, the women and children had their turn; and at long last, the babies were launched. The water, unfortunately, was now so murky and putrid SOS’s were often sent out to find hapless infants.

Another cliché was born: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath!”

Ever see those medieval houses in England and Ireland, the ones with thatched roofs? We had a bunch of them here in America, too, especially in the rural Midwest. It seems inside these roofs is where the animals went to keep warm; the straw and thatch was where the cats, dogs, small barnyard inhabitants (and all their vermin) were prone to live.

When the weather turned inclement, the inside of the roof became soggy and slippery, and the animals would tumble into the living room. “Look, Ma! It’s raining cats and dogs!”

Also, since nothing could stop bugs, mice and nuggets of relief from cascading atop the beds, somebody came up with big posts at the head and foot from which a huge sheet was spread. “Whatcha call this thing, Claude?” “I dunno. How’s about a ‘canopy bed’?”

The house’s floor, of course, was just raked soil. Only the hoypaloy had carpets. The rest of us were “dirt poor.” Not much better than being “piss poor,” I suppose.

Know what “thresh” is? I didn’t either, but my wife told me it is just another word for straw. Anyway, the upper classes had slate floors, which were okay but they got slippery when wet. Somebody got the bright idea to spread thresh (straw) around so Granny wouldn’t slip and break her hip. November became February, and the straw kept piling up so that when you opened the door, it all blew outside. So, a piece of wood was nailed down in the doorway, and the world at last had a “threshold.”

We had a small tavern once, and they tell me my great-great-great-great-etc.-Grandma cooked with a humongous kettle that hung constantly over a fire, a fire that burned and smoldered night and day. Things were added to this gargantuan pot almost hourly, and leftovers remained there (with everything else) to cool off overnight until the embers were stoked the next day. This “stew” grew and grew, and was served to family and patrons while my ancient cousins happily entertained with:

“Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot . . . nine days old!”

Legend has it that sometimes great-great-great-great-etc.-Grandpa came home with some pork, which made everyone feel especially special. When customers came in, Grandpa would produce his pork to show it off—to which Grandma would say, “Yep, the ol’ boy still brings home the bacon, alright!”

So, she would slice off a hunk to share, and they’d all sit around and “chew the fat.” Sure beat reality TV.
But they never served tomatoes. It seems all their plates were made of pewter, and when you put tomatoes on them, the high acidity leached lead into the fruit, which lead to lead poisoning. For more than 400 years, tomatoes were considered poisonous. Who knew?

Bread, however, was a staple, and it was divvied up according to status. Patrons who never tipped got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family members got the middle, and those who left the best gratuities got the top—the “upper crust.”

Speaking of lead, lead cups were used to serve ale and whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers unconscious for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a few days, and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait—to see if they would wake up. It became known as “holding a wake.”

My homestead was old and small, and the local folks soon ran out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to what they called a “bone-house” so they could reuse the grave. When exhuming these coffins, one in twenty-five had scratch marks on the inside—and they suddenly realized they had been burying people alive!

I think it was my great-great-great-great-etc.-Aunt Helen who came to the rescue. She had the idea of tying a string around the wrist of the corpse, leading it through a hole in the coffin lid and up through the ground, then affixing the other end to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift?) to listen for the bell; thus, if it rang, someone would be “saved by the bell” or was at the very least remembered as a “dead ringer.”

A number of cliché mysteries were thus solved. If you have any favorites you’d like me to research, just drop me a line with specifics. No guarantees, but I’ll come up with something.

Copyright©2010 by Robert A. Mills


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Court of Lies by dawn kunda

Brooke's effort to start a new career along with a new love is shot to pieces as her ex-husband lurks around every corner of change. A bullet alters her course and Brooke must filt..  
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