David Bruce: Language Anecdotes

455px-Charles_Darwin_seated_crop

PHOTO: Three quarter length studio photo showing Darwin’s characteristic large forehead and bushy eyebrows with deep set eyes, pug nose and mouth set in a determined look. He is bald on top, with dark hair and long side whiskers but no beard or moustache. His jacket is dark, with very wide lapels, and his trousers are a light check pattern. His shirt has an upright wing collar, and his cravat is tucked into his waistcoat which is a light fine checked pattern.

Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle to gather evidence which supported the theory of evolution is well known. Less well known is that British sailors referred to the Beagle and ships of its type as “coffins,” because of their unfortunate tendency, during bad weather, to sink.

While in Paris, Bette Midler summoned up her very best French in a shop where she wanted to buy a basket for a bike; unfortunately, the salesman asked her to slow down because he wasn’t used to speaking English. After exchanging a few sentences in English, Ms. Midler accused the salesman of being overly picky about his language. The salesman was not swayed by her words, saying instead, “What is not perfect is not French.” Even though Ms. Midler ran out of time and did not buy the bike basket, the story has a happy ending. When she returned home to Hawaii, she found a gift waiting for her. The salesman had sent her the bike basket and this note: “We French are an odd lot. And, I know, often disliked. But lest you mistake, as many do, our love for intellectual debate with cold-hearted arrogance, I am taking the liberty of sending you this.”

Sometimes, people get into show business by accident. Jane Ace once was present at a radio station, waiting for her husband, Goodman Ace, to finish an episode of his series Ace Goes to the Movies. The show that was supposed to follow did not come through, so she was asked to step up to the microphone and fill the time with her husband. She was a hit, and she became a star on the comedy series Easy Aces, where her forte was comic malapropisms, such as “up at the crank of dawn,” “familiarity breeds attempt,” and “we’re insufferable friends.”

Marie Curie was Polish, and some of her servants were Polish, although she lived most of her adult life in France. During World War I, Marie sent her daughters to live for a time in L’Arcouest, a fishing village in Brittany. Some of the villagers accused the daughters of being German, because they spoke a foreign language to their servants. That language, of course, was Polish. To keep the villagers from making unfounded assumptions, one of Marie’s daughters, Irène, began to teach the servants French.

E.B. White is the famous author of Charlotte’s Web and many books of essays, and he learned about writing wherever he could, including from his English professor at Cornell, William Strunk. Another helpful advisor was a Mr. Johns, city editor at the Seattle Times. Mr. White was seeking the best way to phrase something, and he asked Mr. Johns for help. Mr. Johns gave him the very good advice: “Just say the words.”

While on the campaign trail with her husband, John F. Kennedy, Jackie sometimes spoke to Spanish-speaking voters in Spanish, Italian-speaking voters in Italian, and French-speaking voters in French. When she was criticized for doing this, she replied, “All of these people have contributed so much to our country’s culture that it seems a proper courtesy to address them in their own tongue.”

As very young gymnasts, Dominique Moceanu, Shelly Cavaliere, and Becky Wildgen hung out together. They did not like one coach in particular, so Dominique, whose parents had emigrated from Romania, taught them some Romanian words to say to the coach. The coach had no idea what they were saying, and neither did the two non-Romanian-speaking gymnasts, but Shelly guesses that they were “bad words.”

African-American blues singer Tommy McClennan got into trouble at a party in Chicago because he used the word “n*gger” in a song although his friend and fellow blues singer Big Bill Broonzy warned him that up north blacks didn’t like the word even though southern blacks such as Tommy used it. After Tommy sang the word “n*gger,” fighting broke out and Tommy had to escape by jumping out a window.

Rose, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie, was bored while attending the third grade, so she developed her own language. It had all the regular parts of speech, such as verbs and nouns, and she called it Fispooko. The language was not wasted — she spoke it to her donkey, whose name was Spookendyke. As an adult, Rose became a well-known author.

Ballet master George Balanchine, who was born in Russia with the name Gyorgy Balanchivadze, knew English well, but he often used Russian sentence constructions when speaking English. No problem. Those people he knew well always understood him, and he requested that when reporters quoted him, they put his sentences into correct grammatical form.

As head of her own architectural firm in California at a time when that was rare, Julia Morgan (1872-1957) knew how to make a point. Once, a young man in her employ designed a staircase. Ms. Morgan looked at the drawing and noticed that it was impossible to walk up and down the staircase. She told the young man, “I can’t deal with fiction writers.”

Thomas Jefferson’s home was Monticello, which means in Italian “Little Mountain.” He inherited the land from his father, and at age 25 he began to design the home he put there. Even 40 years later, Monticello wasn’t finished, for as Mr. Jefferson said, “Putting up and pulling down [is] one of my favorite amusements.”

It can hurt you not to know your audience. Stand-up comedian Judy Carter once opened for Jim Nabors in Kansas, where she said, “You know what really p*sses me off?” Big mistake. Kansas audiences in general and Jim Nabors fans in particular find the word “p*sses” offensive.

When Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, lived on Samoa, he made an effort to do things the Samoan way. For example, if he wished to praise a Samoan servant who had made a delicious omelette for him, he would say, “Great is your wisdom.”

Muhammad Ali is famous in part for saying, “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee,” but it was actually his friend Bundini Brown who coined the memorable words.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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