David Bruce: Language Anecdotes

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Frances Alda, a soprano, rehearsed before Arturo Toscanini in preparation to play the title role of Charpentier’s Louise, a role that required her to sing in Italian. Ms. Alda sang the entire role, while Maestro Toscanini listened in silence. After she had finished, Maestro Toscanini asked in his native Italian, “In what language were you singing?” Of course, Ms. Alda had been singing in Italian, and she became furious and stormed out of the rehearsal, staying in her hotel for the next few days. (Later, Maestro Toscanini worked long hours with Ms. Alda to teach her the proper Italian pronunciation.)

James J. Walker (1881-1946) was famous both as the mayor of New York City and as the composer of the song “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?” At his funeral, the organist intermingled “Here Comes the Bride” with “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?” This confused a couple of Mr. Walker’s friends: ex-fighter Mike O’Toole and “Rubbernose” Kennedy. Finally, they figured out what must be happening — because the funeral was taking place in a church, the organist must be playing “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?” in Latin.

When he defected from Romania to the United States, world-class gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi knew six languages; unfortunately, none of them was English. He says that knowing these six languages “means nothing in America. If you cannot explain yourself in English, you begin at the bottom.” In fact, Mr. Karolyi learned English with the help of Sesame Street, because the characters spoke slowly and because letters appeared on the television screen.

The doctrine of papal infallibility was promulgated in 1870, and the press was much interested in this doctrine, regularly asking bishops about it. After James Gibbons (1834-1921) became a bishop, and on returning home from a trip to Rome where he had met the Pope, he was asked about papal infallibility. He replied, “All I know is that he kept referring to me as Jibbons.” (Italians pronounce the letter G as the letter J.)

Sir Steven Runciman, a British historian, told ballerina Margot Fonteyn about a parrot that had been named a professor. The parrot had been owned by an old lady who was one of the very few people left who could speak Cornish. After the old lady died, only the parrot was able to speak Cornish, so London University gave the parrot its Chair of Cornish Language.

Fred Astaire used the phrase “a good deed” to refer to a good step in his dancing. Sometimes he would worry that he had not accomplished much while working on a dance, so he would call co-choreographer Hermes Pan and ask, “Did we get a good deed today?” Frequently, Mr. Pan was able to reassure him and mention a certain step that they had worked out together.

Thomas Beecham once conducted the English opera Dylan. Of course, this meant that the English-speaking audience understood all its words. Unfortunately, this led to some unintentional humor. The hero came out singing, “I sing, I have sung, I can sing better.” Since the hero was singing poorly that night, the audience found these lines hilarious.

While listening to the BBC in London, blooper collector Kermit Schafer was surprised to hear a woman actress in a TV program about the Battle of Britain tell the actor playing her boyfriend, “I know everything will be all right, if you will only keep your pecker up.” Later, he learned that in Britain, “pecker” means courage.

Kermit Schafer, collector of the funny misspeakings in broadcasting known as bloopers, once was in England, where BBC commentator Marion White told him that she had some “lovely boobs” to tell him about. That’s when Mr. Schafer learned that in England bloopers are known as boobs.

On May 7, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson and Ohio Governor James Rhodes came to Athens to help Ohio University celebrate its 160th anniversary. Governor Rhodes got a little mixed up in his choice of words and referred to OU as “this venereal institution.”

Emmy Destinn was an opera singer from Czechoslovakia. During World War I, she suffered horribly while being interned in Austria, and after that experience, she vowed that never again would she speak German and she immediately dropped German operas from her repertoire.

At an outdoor rally at which Pope John Paul II spoke, workers were warned against calling the portable potties “Porta-Johns,” as the Holy Father might find the name offensive. Therefore, the workers called the portable potties “Vati-Cans.”

In talking about dance, choreographer Michel Fokine frequently used two Russian words: naslajdaites and laska. According to impresario Sol Hurok, these words, freely translated, mean “do it as though you enjoyed yourself” and “caressingly.”

Arturo Toscanini, the famous conductor, once got very angry at a musician during rehearsal and began to insult him in Italian. Realizing that the musician couldn’t speak Italian, Mr. Toscanini stopped, searched his mind for insults in English, then said, “You bad, bad man.”

Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz started a kosher deli named Maven’s in 1988. On the menu appeared the slogan “Famous Since 5748” — in the Hebrew calendar, “5748” is equivalent to our calendar’s “1988.”

A sundial near Venice bears this Latin inscription: Horas non numero nisi serenas. (I count only the hours that are serene.) In other words, it counts only the hours that are sunny and pleasant.

While in Sweden, Margot Fonteyn heard a toast in English in which a gentleman said that he hoped, “After dinner … you will all enjoy each other,” then added, “In the best possible manner.”

Believe it or not, but there is an edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , edited by John Wallace, that doesn’t contain the words “nigger” or “hell.”

Some people disapproved of Will Rogers’ use of the word “ain’t.” Mr. Rogers responded, “I notice that a lot of guys who ain’t saying ‘ain’t,’ ain’t eatin’.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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 250 ANECDOTES ABOUT OPERA — LULU PAPERBACK

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