Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Words & phrases’ Category

511. Start as you mean to go on.

In Aging, Books, reading, Stories, storytelling, Words & phrases, Work, writing on May 11, 2022 at 12:43 pm

It’s going on 11 am and here I am sitting up in bed with end-of-term grades to submit, two outings to dress for, my daily walk still ahead of me, and a To Do list as long as my arm. One is supposed to get the grades in before starting in on the summer proper, but as usual I have allowed life to flow in and utterly derail me. I had resolved that because I have a lot on next week, I would get down to grading single-mindedly and submit the final grades for my classes early—for the first time ever, mind you. But here I am again, doing everything but, and with every hour that passes, dooming myself to an inevitable all-nighter a week from tomorrow.

But this is all very tedious. Let me tell it differently, with reference to literature. In R.K. Narayan’s delightful second novel, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), the wayward college student Chandran finds himself “face to face with November”, and the realization that half the college year is “already spent.” His B.A. examinations are looming and he has done nothing to prepare for them. “What one ought to do in a full year must now be done in just half the time.” So in a grand gesture that I well recognize, Chandran resolves to begin a rigorous programme of right living: to rise early, bathe in cold water, and give up smoking—just for starters. Then he draws up an ambitious programme of study.

He took out a sheet of paper and noted down all his subjects. He calculated the total number of preparation hours that were available from November the first to March. He had before him over a thousand hours, including the twelve-hour preparations on holidays. Of these thousand hours a just allotment of so many hundred hours was to be made for Modern History, Ancient History, Political Theories, Greek Drama, Eighteenth-century Prose, and Shakespeare. He then drew up a very complicated time-table which would enable one to pay equal attention to all subjects…Out of the daily six hours, three were to be devoted to the Optional Subjects and three to the Compulsory. In the morning the compulsory subjects and Literature at night.

Chandran duly arises at 5 am the next day; but from the very outset, the comedy of life begins getting in the way of his elaborate schedule. Something of great urgency turns up and utterly consumes his time for a fortnight. He has no option but to revise his initial programme to make up for the lost time.

He consoled himself with the fact that he had wasted several months so far, and a fortnight more, added to that account, should not matter…The time wasted in a fortnight could…be made up by half an hour’s earlier rising every day. He would also return home at seven in the evening instead of at seven-thirty. This would give him a clear gain of an hour a day over his previous programme. He hoped to make up the ninety study hours, at six hours a day, lost between the first of November and the fifteenth, in the course of ninety days.

But, notes the narrator wryly, “Man can only propose.” Chandran is inevitably drawn into other escapades that threaten to derail his programme yet again. And as it was with R.K. Narayan’s protagonist, so it was with me. As a junior faculty member facing the deadline for the submission of my book manuscript, I too drew up a rigorous—and altogether unrealistic—timetable with a certain number of hours per day and week allotted to the preparations. When, inevitably, I found myself a few weeks down the line having made no progress to speak of, I too sat down to revise my schedule by increasing the required number of hours of work per day. I consoled myself with the thought that I was not the first to have to revise my programme in this way. After all, the wildly prolific R.K. Narayan’s protagonist had had to do the same thing, hadn’t he?

But a few weeks soon became a few months, and, like Chandran’s, life had broken in and steamrolled over my best intentions. Once again, I found myself re-calculating the number of hours remaining until the hard—and fast-approaching—deadline and once again revising upward the number of hours per day that I would have to apply myself to the increasingly daunting task. I’m ashamed to say that this happened yet again, and yet again, I consoled myself with the example of my fickle—and, I neglected to acknowledge, entirely fictional—literary predecessor.

Somehow I muddled through, and the materials were duly submitted, though not before I had put my family to a lot of unnecessary heartache. For they were packed and ready to set out on our cross-country road trip with the motor running while I assembled the final manuscript and revised the cover note for the umpteenth time. We mailed the package Priority Mail on our way out of town. But this is not my point.

Some time later I returned to The Bachelor of Arts to revisit my hilarious and reassuring fellow-procrastinator who had had to revise his unrealistic timetable repeatedly. But although I went through the text with a fine-tooth comb, I couldn’t find it. Eventually, I had to accept that it wasn’t there. Sure enough, in chapters two through five, Chandran had drawn up his programme and then had had to revise it after events in his life overtook it. But he had only had to do so once. After that initial two-week delay, he had in fact stuck to his punishing schedule of rising at 4:30 am and not retiring to bed until 11:00 pm. He had not lapsed again.  He had not had to ratchet up his hours per day yet again. I, on the other hand, had fallen away from my initial resolve repeatedly and had to revise and re-revise my daily timetable. My consolation, that the great R.K. Narayan’s comic hero had done the same, turned out to have been an utter fiction.

The realization shook me, but I managed to shake it off and soon returned to my bad habits, though now without the reassurance of fiction. Now I just hated myself.

So here it is, past noon now, and, as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers used to say on National Public Radio, “you’ve done it again, you’ve just wasted another perfectly good hour.“ As retirement sets in, I am inevitably making resolutions. It is important to start as you mean to go on, I tell myself—and not for the first time. I am at the other end of life from the young Chandran, who was just starting out. But I recognize his feelings as his college career came to a close:

As they dispersed and went home, Chandran was aware that he had passed the very last moments in his college life, which had filled the major portion of his waking hours for the last four years. There would be no more college for him from tomorrow. He would return a fortnight hence for the examination and (hoping for the best) pass it, and pass out into the world, for ever out of Albert College. He felt very tender and depressed.

Chandran does pass his exams and another, very poignant, chapter of his life begins. If you haven’t read R.K. Narayan’s early trilogy—Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher—you have a treat in store. For my part, I still intend to start as I mean to go on. Stay tuned.

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508. Wordplay

In Books, Play, reading, Stories, Teaching, Words & phrases on February 4, 2022 at 2:32 pm

Every day, still in bed and sipping our morning tea, Andrew and I play the New York Times Spelling Bee. It was something a friend shared with me during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic while (like many non-frontline workers) I had the luxury of sheltering in place, but even now, when I must rise early to go out to work, this morning ritual takes precedence over just about anything else. I may miss breakfast, but never the Bee. Why does it give me so much pleasure? 

Wordplay runs in the family. My mother’s siblings would engage in it with gusto, from poring over the daily crossword together to rapid-fire repartee over lunchbreak that left me in the dust, rolling with laughter and utterly unable to keep up with their brilliant verbal sparring. 

Some people are visual learners, while others are more verbal. Unsurprisingly, I lean heavily toward the verbal, so that a particular turn of phrase can draw me to someone (or turn me right off them), while I can know a person for years without even registering the color of their eyes. As a child I could allay hunger pangs simply by reading descriptions of meals in my favorite books and as an adult I derive great pleasure simply from rolling delicious words on (and off) my tongue. I suspect that I have been guilty of arrogance, of seeing my delight in words as a rarefied pleasure shared only by an elite few (such as the aficionados of the NYT Spelling Bee), but an exercise in class yesterday reminded me that everyone who uses words shares these sensations of delight and disgust. 

This semester I’m co-teaching a course, and my colleague and I take it in turns to lead the meetings. Yesterday he ran the class, and since it was our first week teaching face-to-face and masked after having conducted the first two weeks of classes online, he called for another round of introductions. To encourage a sense of community and to help us remember the students’ names by association, he suggested that, along with their names, each student share either a word they loved or one that they could not stomach. What a pleasure it was to hear the passion in their voices as they shared their choices and told us why they felt as they did about them! Some of the favorites were, gesticulate, defenestration, immaculate, psychological, wicked (in its New England sense), and Cape Codder (as  a self-description); some of the pet peeves (there were far fewer of these): sure (as an ambiguous reply), gift (as a verb), and—my choice on the eve of the Winter Olympics—medal (as a verb). 

Of course, as an English teacher I have many more words and phrases that make my mouth water or my toes curl. In fact, in my sedentary profession I’m in danger of activities like page-turning, gesticulating, and getting goosebumps (or goose pimples) becoming my principal sources of exercise. (Note to self: must get out more often.)

Dear Reader, what is the word that excites the strongest emotions in you? And if you can’t come up with one I’ll eat my words

Homemade present from Andrew

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497. Euphemisms

In blogs and blogging, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 10, 2021 at 2:02 am

This is the fifth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

By definition, idioms have a meaning “not deducible from those of the individual words” that make them up; their meaning is metaphorical and can only be divined through usage. Euphemisms are a class of idioms that double down on this definition by deliberately concealing their meaning for the purpose of softening something embarrassing or unpleasant.

As R.W. Holder put it in his How Not to Say What You Mean, euphemisms are the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery and deceit. They are frequently deployed to skirt the subjects of death (as in “passed”–like a kidney stone?), bodily functions (unfortunately named “comfort stations” for public toilets), and sexual misconduct ( a “player” for a sexual predator)—all sexual conduct (“making whoopee”), for that matter. They may be quite acceptable when they seek to comfort or protect, for example, a person who is grieving, although sometimes I wonder whether beating around the bush protects the bereaved or the speaker. In fact, I think that euphemisms most often serve to protect the speaker from discomfort–or worse, from a public outcry or even criminal prosecution.

Businesses routinely employ euphemisms when giving their workers the boot, attempting to put a better public face on what is a sad and ugly business any way you look at it. “Letting them go” is the least of it, since “I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go,” suggests reluctance to part with the employee. When someone is made redundant, the passive construction suggests that it was no one’s decision, just a consequence of the March of Progress. When downsizing—sorry, rightsizing—demands mass layoffs, they are often referred to as trimming the fat, as if the lazy workers are all that stand in the way of a leaner, meaner organization.

But the most pernicious deception, in my view, is practiced by so-called intelligence organizations and the military. Even their names are euphemisms. Until 1949 the combined departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force had been called the War Department because that was what it did; soon after WWII was over, in 1949, the United States, now the ruler of the Free World, renamed it the Department of Defense. It now appeared that the nation with by far the world’s largest military and arms industry, the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, was not a bully or a warmonger, but a defender of freedom and democracy. And as for military intelligence, well, that’s an oxymoron as well as a euphemism. In this regard I recommend an illuminating 2019 article (and podcast) by Stephen J. Thorne, Euphemisms, Acronyms, and Outright Lies: The Language of War  and a recent article by Margot Williams on euphemisms used by apologists of torture at Guantánamo Bay.

Here are just a few of the military euphemisms which vie for the most sickening in my book:  
conflict: war (John Prine’s Sam Stone hits this nail on the head.)
enhanced interrogation: torture
extraordinary rendition: torture by proxy
taking [someone] out: killing
collateral damage: civilian casualties
friendly fire: accidental shooting by someone on one’s own side.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, 2006 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If you’ve been following my posts in this anachronidioms series you may be wondering in what sense these euphemisms are anachronistic. Sadly, they’re not, in that they’re still very much with us. However, we forget their relatively recent origins at our peril. Several of these terms have been in use for decades—as slang, in private military circles, or, if used in the print media, then only in quotation marks—but have officially entered the language quite recently, since the 1990s or early 2000s. Learning of the context and purpose of their emergence may help immunize us against accepting them as normal.

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496. Dancing in the Street

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2021 at 3:26 am

This is the fourth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Dancing is movement and movement is change. Dancing in the street is an inherently liberating idea because it moves from a private, contained space to the public thoroughfare. When people get up and dance, circulation happens, and circulation is anathema to stagnation, segregation, incarceration, a threat to the status quo in any number of ways. Of course, circulation is essential to life, and dancing, more than anything else, is life.  

There are dozens of dance-related idioms in English alone: it takes two to tango, give it a whirl, be or to get in the groove, tread on someone’s toes, step out of line, be footloose and fancy free, light on one’s feet, get off on the wrong foot, sweep someone off their feet, look lively, and strut one’s stuff, just to name a few. None of the above are particularly anachronistic, with the possible exception of in the groove, with its origins in gramophone or phonograph records, which released the sound when the record player’s needle, or stylus, came into contact with the rotating surface of the grooved record (originally shellac, and after the 1940s, vinyl).

How does dancing figure in my personal A-to-Z of anachronidioms?

My mother loved dancing–in fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she lived to dance. My father loved music, but far preferred to tap his feet and watch. In post-war London of the late 1940s and early 1950, before she got married, Mum used to go dancing every week with her best friend Lily. They would go to the movies every week as well, or as often as they could afford, to see American films, mostly, with Frank Sinatra and other heartthrobs of the time. Bill, my eldest cousin and eleven years my senior, remembers jiving with his cool Aunt Glad to Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and the Comets. That must have been in 1956, when, if I was two, Bill was turning thirteen. Mum knew loads of different dances and was always learning new ones. Parties in those days always featured music and dancing—in fact, dancing was the whole point of the party as far as she was concerned. When there was no one at home to dance with, Mum would rub two rags in floor polish, attach them to her feet, and dance, polishing the parquet floor as she did so and, in place of a partner, swinging round the column in the middle of the living-room floor.

Three dance-related idioms have a special meaning for me, and are anachronistic in the sense that they take me right back to a bygone time. The first calls up my (non-dancing) father and one of his favorite expressions. I hadn’t thought of it for years until I was brainstorming for today’s entry: to make a song and dance. It means to make an unnecessary fuss about something, to make a production out of it. Dad was characteristically short-tempered, and he used this when he was annoyed with someone who, instead of just getting something done, made a song and dance about it, or—another expression of his—a hoo-ha, a big fuss over nothing. (I never got the impression that Dad approved of Mum’s swooning over the song-and-dance men of the silver screen, He certainly didn’t care for Frank Sinatra, and I can’t help think it had something to do with Mum loving him so much.)

The second of my triad of dance-related anachronidioms: to put on one’s dancing shoes. This means, to get into a positive frame of mind or to get ready to party. For me it will always and forever be associated with the summer of 1963, our third and last summer in Athens, when I was nine years old and my parents took us to an open-air movie screening (not a drive-in, no-one had a car) to see Summer Holiday, starring the British pop singer, Cliff Richard (now Sir Cliff Richard–the Queen has a soft spot for him). In it, our hero and his boy band rent a red double-decker bus and drive overland to Greece in it, finding romance along the way, of course. Put on Your Dancing Shoes was one of the movie’s many musical number. I cringe as I watch it today—it hasn’t aged well; but back then, it was pure romance.  

My third dance-related anachronidiom, two left feet,  takes me back to 1967 in Gangtok, Sikkim, and the kind of shame that makes one’s cheeks burn. I was just 13, a particularly self-conscious age, and visiting a school friend over a week-long break when her parents invited some young members of the Sikkimese royal family over for the evening. It was embarrassing enough to be introduced to these princelings in my early-teen clumsiness, but the nightmare began when it was suggested that some entertainment was in order, and that entertainment was ballroom dancing. I froze; the only dance I knew how to do was something called the African Twist, that some exchange students from the U.S. to our school in India had taught us. Somebody put on a record, paired us up, and announced a foxtrot.

I won’t dwell on the awful details. I couldn’t do it; couldn’t even fake it. He knew it and I knew he knew it, although he was terribly well brought up and smoothed things over with the utmost finesse. Of course his princely education must have covered ballroom dancing, but that didn’t help; it wasn’t in my repertoire and it takes two to foxtrot. Two left feet on my part, and some treading on toes into the bargain.

Martha and the Vandellas (Photo: Motown/EMI-Hayes Archives)

There is another category of dance-related anachronidioms: song titles. They epitomize a particular moment in time and their very opening notes conjure it up. Some of them resonate deeply, cutting across nations, classes, ages, races, genders, rising to the status of anthems. When the song’s title is also an idiom, it is all the more evocative. For me these songs would have to include two by Bob Marley and the Wailers: Get Up, Stand Up and Lively Up Yourself and Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul. But the one I want to pay tribute to today is the Motown hit Dancing in the Street, sung by Martha and the Vandellas, co-written by producer Micky Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, and Ivy Jo Hunter, and released in the explosive summer of 1964. Motown was in the business of making hits, not revolution, and they were very good at it. They swore that the song was just about city children in Detroit taking the caps off the fire hydrants during the heat of the summer, and its promotional video featured crowds of young people, almost all white, groovin’ to the beat; but something about the song made it a call to action, despite the best efforts of the record company.

Martha Reeves told the story in an interview during the summer of 2020, when the entire nation was swept by protests following the killings of Armaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Tayor, Jacob Blake, and too many more. According to music critic Jim Farber, writing in the Guardian:

Right after she recorded the exuberant anthem in July of 1964 as frontwoman of Martha and the Vandellas, it became a worldwide smash, selling millions of copies while serving as the song of its summer. At the same time, its lyrical “invitation across the nation … for folks to meet” in the street – matched to a melody and vocal as urgent as a clarion call – soon took on a second, more pointed, meaning. The transformation took place during the long, hot summers of 1964 and 65, “when riots broke out, in every city in the nation”, Reeves recalled. “Just like now, the police brutality and the government trying to control black people, prompted the uprising that was a revolution.”

I first heard Dancing in the Street in 1968, from those American exchange students from Detroit (or was it Chicago?) at our boarding school in India, the same ones who had taught me the African Twist. I had never heard any Motown before that. I had never heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, either, until his assassination was announced at the school assembly one April morning, and Laura and Joanne burst into tears. It was clear that there was a great ferment taking place back in the United States, a country that I didn’t know I was to migrate to in less than two years. By the time I got to the United States and heard more Motown at parties in college, it was the sound of white nostalgia. Inevitably, at a certain point in the party, usually quite late, someone would put on My Girl, and all the merriment would grind to a halt. There would be an almost religious hush, followed by an ecstatic singalong; and I would just stand there, alienated, because My Girl didn’t mean anything to me. It was just an anachronism; unlike Dancing in the Street, which was part of my history, even if only at second hand.

Did I mention that besides all of the above, dancing in the streets is a dance-related idiom? It means being extremely happy. Fully alive.

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495. Clothes and Clothing

In Aging, Britain, clothing, culture, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on April 3, 2021 at 11:15 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Clothing is used to cover and protect one’s body from threats of all kinds, and it is used performatively, to mask and dissemble. Clothing can make you feel more fully yourself but it can help you present yourself as someone else, someone more socially acceptable. Clothes make the man, as they say. They can bolster your confidence or expose your vulnerabilities. No wonder there is such a wealth of idiomatic language involving clothes and clothing, in sayings and expressions that refer to covering up, like the predatory wolf in sheep’s clothing and to stripping away, like the emperor in the fairytale whose new clothes turned out to be his birthday suit. (Here’s Danny Kaye telling the story in his inimitable fashion.)

Let’s start with clothing in general. Someone who dresses well and has good taste in clothes is said to have dress sense. If they are obsessed with clothes and buy rather too many of them, they may be referred to as a clothes horse, which is also that folding wooden rack on which you hang your clothes out to dry (something that is coming back into use now that people are trying to reduce their carbon footprints). When you get dressed up for a party, you put on your glad rags, and when you really go all out, you’re dressed to the nines or puttin’ on the Ritz, as in the Irving Berlin song of 1930, written during the Great Depression when someone who had lost everything—lost his shirt, you might say—made an extra-special effort to put his best foot forward. Fred Astaire certainly did! All these sayings are relatively positive, but there are plenty of others that indicate failure or disapproval in various ways.

Society imposes heavy pressure on the young, but also on the elderly. My mother used to worry, as she got older, of being seen as mutton dressed like lamb, as she would put it. In my youthful self-involvement I would scoff at the idea, telling her that she looked lovely–which she did. But it was not until I reached that age myself that I began to understand the social pressure to dress one’s age and, as an older woman, fade discreetly into the background. Times change, though, and I like to think that women of my generation, always a feisty lot, have refused to conform to social expectations that dictate their disappearance.

To pick up the pace here, I’ll wrap up with a quick rundown of some more clothing-related  anachronidioms many of which are as gendered as clothing itself. There’s the expression, wearing the trousers (or pants, in the U.S.), as in, “It’s clear who wears the trousers in that household.” It’s equally clear that it refers to the woman of the house, since she is the one who is not supposed to be wearing them; and that this idiom, though still in use, started to sound outdated as soon as it became common for women to wear trousers in public.

Clothing idioms can be used to make open threats as well as to express social disapproval. The colorful, I’ll have your guts for garters, used to be popular, but with the wearing of garters on the wane, it just doesn’t have the same currency anymore. As for shirts, generous people would give you the shirt off their backs and compulsive gamblers would lose theirs. Having a bee in one’s bonnet has gone out of use with bonnets and a bad hat might have been familiar to the children reading Madeline and the Bad Hat in the 1950s, but little boys don’t wear hats so much anymore, even if bad hats may still take pleasure in torturing small animals. In other images of repression and compulsion, young people speak freely of toxic parents, but not so much of being tied to Mother’s apron strings. In the days of corsets and stays, and hundreds of little buttons on women’s clothing, someone who was so uptight they could hardly breathe was said to be buttoned up. Not to put too fine a point on things, someone who was fired from their job was given the boot. They still are.  

Many clothing idioms seem to come in opposing pairs. One rolls up one’s sleeves to dig into some honest hard work but keeps something up one’s sleeve—often an ace—to hold in secret reserve and use to one’s advantage when the time is right. Listen for it in the second verse of John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream (1971).

From sleeves to gloves and a final pair of idioms, both suggesting the arrogation of authority by the powerful. To handle someone with kid gloves means to treat a difficult person delicately, with great fastidiousness and care, care that they probably don’t deserve. This person is difficult because he can afford to be, and the kid (leather) gloves—made from the skins of baby goats—are not something that just anyone can afford, only the filthy rich. Today, ordinary people wear gloves for work and to keep them warm, but rarely for mere decoration. And then there is the velvet glove, the one with the iron fist inside it. Sadly, that doesn’t look to be going out of fashion anytime soon.

(Done! And to think I sat down to write a short entry off the cuff.)

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494. Britishisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Childhood, culture, Education, Family, history, Stories, Words & phrases on April 2, 2021 at 10:57 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Of course one can’t generalize about a country’s idioms. What figures in one’s speech depends on class background, education, geographical region, and age, and a whole host of other variables. Although I only lived in England for short periods of time when I was very young, I also attended the British Embassy School when we lived in Athens, and my parents insisted on my speaking Standard English (along with Received Pronunciation, or RP) at home. So, ironically, my speech was more “English” than many of my British peers who had never left the country.

In school at age 9 I was learning not only decimals—centimetres, metres, and kilometres, grams and kilograms—and British measures: inches, feet, and yards, ounces and pounds; but also, for good measure, hundredweight (cwt) and tons, pecks and bushels. And, of course, until 1971, there was still the good old LSD (pounds (£), shillings(s), and pence(d)). (By the time I returned to India at age 9½  we already had the decimal system of 100 np (naya, or new, paise) to the rupee, but we still used the old system of 16 annas to the rupee as well, so that four annas were equivalent to 25 np.)

Here’s the kind of problem we might have had to solve in my British maths class:

Find the total cost of 2 ½ cwt. of metal at £2 3s. 6d. per cwt., plus a total charge of 4s. 6d. for cartage.

Cartage, I ask you!

But I’m digressing. I was supposed to be talking about anachronistic Britishisms. I ask you (meaning, Isn’t that ridiculous?) is probably one of them.  

Apropos of archaisms, back in the 1960s we were still saying, Give him a inch and he’ll take an ell, and learning what an ell was, just in case, even though “mile” had replaced “ell” by 1900, more than half a century earlier.

Having come from a working-class background—dire poverty, if truth be told— my mother and her siblings were possessed of an acute class consciousness and a strong sense of working-class pride. As such, they also had a nose for anyone putting on airs. When my imposing Aunty Bette put on her best fur coat and sailed out on the town with her head held high, Mum would call her beautiful elder sister “Lady Dunabunk” (though not to her face; she would never have dared). Apparently the more common expression was Lady Muck, with the scoundrel Lord Dunabunk as her male counterpart. The expression dated from the era of the Great War, which is about right, since Aunty Bette was born in 1919. The matriarch of the family, she died just over a year ago, going on 100, on the eve of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

On a lighter note, but speaking of contagious diseases, a Britishism that became popular in the year of my birth, but whose origin is lost in the mists of time is the dreaded lurgi (or “lurgy”). It refers melodramatically to any disease that’s catching but not fatal. My cousins Jacky and Carol used it and must have learnt it from their father, my Uncle Ted. I had rather assumed that it was a family joke, until I looked it up just recently and found that it had been popularized on The Goon Show, in Series 5, Episode 7 (November 1954), Lurgi Strikes Britain. That zany BBC radio comedy show (1951-1960) with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and others inspired Monty Python and a whole generation of British comedians and artists—including John Lennon. The dreaded lurgy is still in circulation in the U.K. (along with a contagious disease that is, sadly, a lot more fatal), but British readers will have to tell me whether you think it’s becoming archaic.

This journey through obscure and anachronistic Britishisms has been scattershot and highly idiosyncratic, but what else could it have been? It’s sad to think that the expressions of our parents’ generation are falling out of use, and yet it’s delightful when they crop up unexpectedly in the strangest places. I miss the expressions that only Mum would use, such as calling someone “slomocky” or a “Slomocky Maureen.” I never asked her to define it but to the best of my understanding it referred to someone who was slatternly, slovenly, unkempt, or uncoordinated. It can be found sporadically in newspapers and books dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s well on the way out.  

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493. Animalidioms

In culture, Stories, Words & phrases on April 1, 2021 at 11:58 pm

This is the first entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

As it happens, the title of my first-year composition classes this semester is Humans and Other Animals. We’ve been reading and writing about human and non-human animals, human-animal bonding, the ethics of “pet” ownership, animal rights vs. animal welfare, anthropomorphism, non-human personhood, sentience and consciousness. Soon we’ll have to look the future in the eye and contemplate the Anthropocene and its implications for us all. We’ve also been forced to recognize the depth of human cruelty to non-human animals as we use and abuse them for our own benefit in every arena in which we interact, whether it’s in the home or the shelter, in the farm, factory, or forest, in the zoo or the circus, the laboratory or the slaughterhouse, for sustenance or for sport. It’s inhuman, to say the least. We use them literally but also in a manner of speaking, not only shoveling them into our mouths by the millions but rolling them liberally off our tongues. I’m talking about animal idioms.

It’s been almost exactly 100 years since more Americans lived in urban areas than in the country, but we still use anachronistic agricultural idioms unthinkingly every day. We try to make hay while the sun shines, pity those with a long row to hoe, dismiss small potatoes, discriminatingly separate the wheat from the chaff. But these sayings are as nothing compared to the beasts of the field that we sacrifice in speech. Some of these sayings may seem relatively benign, but when you call a spade a spade benign enslavement is still enslavement.

Unnecessarily, we beat a dead horse; we take pleasure in someone’s else’s goose being cooked. Churlishly, we look a gift horse in the mouth and when we’re gobsmacked, we stone the crows. Some of us will talk the hind leg off a donkey, running our mouths, while others run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

We seem to have a special venom reserved for the humble pig, perhaps because of its intelligence, or its similar tastes to our own. We make it wallow in its own filth and then label it unclean. The heads of our households bring home the bacon, while our fools cast pearls before swine, or try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Our savagery and deceit are exposed when we let the cat out of the bag or try to make someone buy a pig in a poke, and when we say someone has had more fun than a barrel of monkeys. So much fun (not)!

“Man’s best friend” doesn’t fare much better. At his best, he looks like a dog’s dinner, but mostly, he leads a dog’s life, and is frequently in the doghouse being punished. Even when we tell ourselves that “our animals” are safe with us, our idioms suggest otherwise. Why, then, does the prospect of the chickens coming home to roost set off alarm bells? And why do those placid cows take their sweet time to come home?

Especially since I’ve been teaching about human treatment of non-human animals, I am struck anew by the violence of these images and the harsh light they shine on us. Sadly, even as I set out to explore anachronistic idioms, I find that this cruelty is alive and well, even when we may no longer be yoking our oxen to the plow every morning, or trying to drag that stubborn mule somewhere it is determined not to go. I can’t listen to Bing Crosby exhorting children to  Swing on a Star without wincing at:

A pig is an animal with dirt on his face
His shoes are a terrible disgrace
He has no manners when he eats his food
He’s fat and lazy and extremely rude
But if you don’t care a feather or a fig
You may grow up to be a pig.

But I don’t mind John Prine, in It’s A Big Old Goofy World, reminding us that we are the stupid ones:

Why it’s clear as a bell
I should have gone to school
I’d be wise as an owl
Stead of stubborn as a mule.

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492. Notting Hill Bedsitter, 1950s

In Britain, Family, history, Immigration, Music, Stories, Words & phrases on February 13, 2021 at 10:30 pm

Notting Hill Gate, 1956 (Dave Walker, The Library Time Machine)

One day in the last year or so of his life, Dad told me about digs he’d shared in Notting Hill while he was living in London. I was surprised, because although Notting Hill, a district of West London, was known for its bedsitters, I hadn’t realized until then that Dad had ever lived there. This would have been before the Notting Hill riots of 1958 and well before the start of the Notting Hill Carnivalsound stages, masquerades, revelry—held on the streets defiantly, joyfully, triumphantly, every year since 1966, on August bank holiday weekend.

Notting Hill Carnival: Our History (

I knew that the district had been home to many West Indian immigrants after the War, but was not aware that Irish, Asian Indians, and Africans new to England had also found lodgings there. As for my father, I had thought that when he was in England as a young man he had always lived in North London, in and around Belsize Park, near Hampstead, the favorite haunt of my mother and her siblings, and Kentish Town, where Mum was born and lived until she and Dad got married.   

Anyway, Dad’s Notting Hill flatmate was a nice enough fellow, but not someone Dad knew well, not a personal friend and neither a fellow-architect nor a fellow-Indian. He was, however, a heavy drinker. Apparently, no sooner had he finished off one bottle of booze than he would open another, and the empties were all stacked along the walls of the bachelor pad.

One day, Dad invited a friend from work over. As soon as his workmate stepped into the flat, his eyes fell on the enormous pile of empty liquor bottles. He couldn’t help but burst out, in utter astonishment,

“Cor blimey, stone the crows!”

Since Mum was a Londoner, of course I knew the origin of cor blimey, but I had to look up stone the crows. I’m sorry for the eponymous crows, but I think he was just terribly surprised. Sixty years later, and Dad had never forgotten his words. 

I should have asked Dad more about his life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. He was making history, a history which I now study with a more than scholarly passion.

                                     Stone the Crows (

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491. Anticipation, Not Dread

In Aging, Music, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on January 26, 2021 at 2:06 pm

I’m one of those people who can go from zero to sixty in an instant: a human panic button. It doesn’t matter whether the precipitating factor is a trivial matter like the milk for my tea going bad or an enormity like the war on Yemen: in either case I’m on a hair trigger. I’ve always insisted that I’m not really anxious, that it’s just my way of letting off steam; but this has allowed me to dismiss the corrosive effect of my explosive behavior, not only on my own well-being, but also on people around me. It must be exhausting to interact with someone who is perpetually on high alert about one thing or another. And, I’m increasingly recognizing, it can be exhausting to be that person.

“There’s no problem here.” This proposition has presented itself to me two or three times in as many weeks, raised by different people in different settings. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as irresponsibly acquiescent, when vigilance and resistance is required at this time. Of course this world is rife with problems. But as Pete Seeger reminds us in Turn, Turn, Turn, there is a time and a season for everything. And nobody would accuse the author of If I Had a Hammer of acquiescence. 

What would it mean to tell oneself that there was no problem here? Our meditation teacher has asked us to give this question some consideration. Of course there are many problems, internal and external, small and large. But what purpose does it serve to identify with every problem? Perhaps it does nothing but get one’s knickers in a twist. Might it not be better all round to be able to discern whether or not a given situation needs to be considered a problem in the first place, and whether making it a problem does anything but give one an adrenaline rush?

Moving from the impersonal “one” to the first person—me, that is—how might it be different if I pushed a mental pause, rather than a panic, button when each new situation presented itself? It would give me time to think and space to breathe. It would allow me to assess the seriousness and scope of the situation. It would enable me to determine whether it was something I could affect positively by my actions, and if not, to simply set it aside rather than fretting needlessly about it. And if it was something critically important to me, that pause would allow me to consider how I might address it most effectively.

An example that I’m dealing with now. Next week I start teaching again after a semester-long sabbatical leave. During this time my colleagues have been learning how to use videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom to conduct their classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that I have a lot of catching up to do. I could sound off about it—and believe me, I have—or I could start addressing the situation. Is it a problem? Not necessarily, because I have the time and the tools to deal with it before it becomes a problem. However, my default mode would be to make a tremendous fuss about it and demand that all my friends and my long-suffering spouse make a fuss about it too. Wouldn’t the best course of action simply be to get on with it, asking questions and getting answers, revising my syllabi for the new situation, and reminding myself that my students are likely to be struggling with it much more than I am. It is in the nature of this situation that we will encounter problems—personal, political, psychological, technological—but we are in it  together and we must deal with it together. The trick for me is to look upon my return to teaching not with dread, but with anticipation, and to prepare for it accordingly.

I can’t do anything about the zero-to-sixty phenomenon that seems to have turned me into a Senior Citizen overnight; but I can adjust the hair-trigger 0-60 setting on my fight-or-flight response. In fact I must: it’s unsustainable at my age. What I’ve come to see is that a panic response makes it impossible to deal with any situation optimally. Quite the opposite: it turns every new situation into a problem.

Yes, there is a problem here, but it’s one of my own making.

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490. A Continuation

In Books, Music, Politics, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases on December 31, 2020 at 8:08 pm

A continuance is a request by a party in a criminal case to reschedule a court date. The date can be for a hearing or a trial.

As the year draws to a close, at least for those who measure the passage of time by the Roman calendar, the internet is abuzz with messages bidding 2020 Good Riddance and looking eagerly to 2021 for new beginnings. For my part, I’ll be grateful for the chance of a continuation.

Of course we are desperate to draw a hard cut-off line under the ravages of the past year and celebrate the prospect of a return to life after COVID-19. Most of us realize, though, that we will never return to the old normality; which, in any case, was already unacceptable. Furthermore, metaphorically turning the page on 2020 will not end the pandemic or restore the lives, homes, and livelihoods lost to it. It will not end the endemic violence in our societies and around the world. It will not bring equality under the law regardless of race, class, or creed. It will not repair the fabric of our communities torn apart by greed, hostility, and mistrust. It will not feed hungry children, mend shattered lives, or heal broken hearts.

Those awaiting new political leadership, either in anticipation or in dread, may well find that in fact the new dispensation will not be much more than the old dressed up in a different style. (Here’s how The Who put it in Won’t Get Fooled Again and I must admit the truth in it, though I still resist the political cynicism.) There will be some movement, whether backward or forward, but either way we will just have to keep on pushing if we want to translate those new faces at the top into positive change in ordinary people’s lives.

Of course we all know that the end of one year and the beginning of the next is an arbitrary marker. Every moment of every day is a new beginning, if only the individual and the collective have the will to make it so. But new beginnings are not brought to fruition in a moment. So many people are forced to keep their lives on hold, in hostage to the whims of those in power. They are in limbo, waiting for a court hearing, a judge’s ruling, unable to make long-term plans. But the longed-for ruling, when it comes, may be a hard cut-off, a decree of immediate deportation or a sentence to lifetime imprisonment, whether literally or metaphorically. In  such cases, we may prefer a continuance to a final ruling, because it allows more time for us to work for change.

In U.S. law, when a court grants a continuance it means that the court date is temporarily suspended or postponed. When work is permitted a continuation, it means that the process underway can continue. It may not be completed, but at least it has not been terminated. There is still hope.

Progress is like that, moving in fits and starts. We continue to work as long as we can, and often a continuance is the best we can hope for. Those of us who are still here can celebrate that fact and recommit ourselves to preventing disaster capitalism from hi-jacking catastrophe yet again.

The prospect of a continuation is a positive one because it allows us more time not only to restore balance after a crisis, but to set things to rights, to set ourselves on a sustainable path, to heal divisions rather than merely to win.

In Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, three siblings whose family was broken apart and dispersed in the wake of Partition have become even further estranged over the years, by their different circumstances, their different personalities, and a series of misunderstandings and long-held grudges. When one sister, Tara, now living in the U.S. returned for a visit to her sister Bim in India, they finally began to make a breakthrough, but only when it was nearly time for them to part again. Tara begged Bim, who was ready to dismiss their precarious new understanding, to recognize that they had made progress. Said Bim, with her characteristic impatience:

‘Don’t be so silly, Tara—it was all so long ago.’

‘Yes, but’, cried Tara desperately (and with one of my favorite lines of all time):  ‘but it’s never over. Nothing’s over, ever.’

‘No,’ Bim agreed, growing gentler. . . Nothing’s over. . .Ever’.*

Tara seemed comforted to have Bim’s corroboration. . .  At least they had agreed to a continuation. *

Nothing’s over, ever; even this terrible year. And yet, as we remember Auld Lang Syne all over again, we are right to put 2020 behind us and to welcome 2021. Our struggles will not be over, not by a long shot, but we have been granted a continuation. Happy New Year!

*A confession: when discussing this passage in my book, Colonial Karma, I actually misquoted it, using the word ‘continuance’ rather than ‘continuation.’ Setting it right here, more than 15 years later, proves that it’s never too late to correct one’s mistakes.

The quote above is from Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. Harper and Row, 1980, page 174.

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