Allora

I’ve been hearing a lot of Italian and Sicilian over the past few days. They are lovely languages to listen to, even if I don’t understand much: rhythmic, fast-paced, and almost lyrical. It’s like listening to a song where you don’t know what is being sung, but you really like the melody. If you like Louie, Louie by the Kingmen, for example, who cares if the words are so slurred and garbled you don’t understand any of them?

One word you hear frequently in Italy and Sicily is “allora.” It often appears at the beginning of sentences, such as when a guy sitting at a table next to us the other day began his apparent order by saying “allora” and then launching into the selections for his table. It seems to be sprinkled liberally into many Italian statements. What does it mean? The Capo dei Capi and the Swiss Shutterbug translate it as meaning “so” or “then,” and it also can mean “well.” It’s a kind of Italian gap filler that gets the tongue going while the brain is still considering exactly what to say.

Imagine how much more pleasant listening to the English language would be if we all were in the habit of saying “allora” instead of “uh” when we were a bit stuck on what to say next!

Cutting The (Linguistic) Mustard

Recently I mentioned, with some asperity, that a particular effort didn’t “cut the mustard.” Two of my colleagues looked at me in bewilderment. They’d apparently never heard the phrase before, and had no idea that “cutting the mustard” meant meeting a desired standard of performance. To them, it was just another inexplicable saying that would have to be added to their growing list of quaint “Bobisms.”

Where does “cut the mustard” come from? Like many idioms, its lineage is disputed. Some sources contend it is British in origin and refers to the physical act of cutting down mustard plants, which requires sufficiently sharp tools; dull tools therefore would not “cut the mustard.” Others believe that it is an Americanism, perhaps originating in Texas, where a use of the phrase was found in a Galveston newspaper in the 1890s. O. Henry also used “cut the mustard” in some of his popular short stories in the early 1900s, which may have helped to spread the saying to the United States at large. One source argues that mustard has long been associated with being strong or sharp, and “cutting the mustard” relates to that notion.

I have a related, but slightly different, theory: I think that because mustard can be so powerfully flavored, the other ingredients of your sandwich or dinner must be sufficiently tasty to hold their own and make their presence known. I’m guessing that, out on the dusty plains of Texas, a cowboy took a bite into a sandwich and realized that the meat and other sandwich makings were so insubstantial and bland that they were overwhelmed by the pungent mustard. He then packed his saddlebags, spurred his horse, and ruefully concluded that the unsatisfying sandwich wouldn’t cut the mustard.

Can it really be that “cut the mustard” has passed totally out of usage by anyone under, say, 60? If so, that’s too bad. It’s one of those idioms that adds flavor — pun intended — to our language.

Two To Too Tutu

First thing yesterday morning Kish pointed out that it was 2/22/22, a “palindrome date.” (Or, if you live in a part of the world where the date precedes the month, the even more palindromic 22/2/22.) The fact that it fell on the second day of the week led some people to call it “Twosday.” And numerologists and those who are sensitive to the significance of this kind of thing contend that it was an auspicious day for reflection on relationships, good fortune, cosmic karma, Zen, and other highly spiritual things.

I therefore hope you all had a lucky, happy, spiritual, relationship-building Twosday.

My mind went in a slightly different direction, however, thinking instead of how the “two” sound, by itself, forms multiple words with totally different meaning. “Two” is a number. “To” connotes motion in a particular direction. “Too” reflects excessiveness (as in “eating too much”) and is also synonymous with “in addition.” And “tutu” is a specific kind of outfit for a female ballet dancer. No doubt the linguists among us could trace the distinct roots of each word to explain how they all developed with exactly the same sound.

Whatever their roots, I think there must be something that people particularly like about that “two” sound that would cause it to produce so many different standalone words. And it is not just true of English, either: in French, “tu” is the familiar form of “you.” Part of the attraction of yesterday’s palindrome must therefore simply lie in repeatedly making the “two” sound–which admittedly is pretty satisfying if you try it.

I also think that I am glad that I learned English as a kid growing up and assimilated all of the different “two” words as a matter of course, without giving it much thought. If you were someone who needed to learn English as a second language, trying to figure out what the person you were speaking to meant when they made the “two” sound might leave you flummoxed.

Mixed Messaging

This message on the rear windshield of one of the local vehicles in St. Lucia stopped us cold for a bit. You could read it as a warning that the car is full of bad energy and you should avoid it like the plague, which is how I first understood it. But later I realized that you also could read it as a heartfelt request that negative energy please not descend on the car’s owner and occupants.

Or, it could be a consciously ambiguous message, meant to convey both meanings at the same time. I kind of like that reading the best–it is well suited to fans of the Cleveland Browns, like me.

Losing Clockwisdom

The other day someone asked me about my morning walks around Schiller Park and I explained that, being a creature of habit, I inevitably walk up Third Street and, when I reach the park, I head counterclockwise for my laps around the park. My friend understood exactly what I meant and no doubt visualized the hands of a clock in the process.

It made me wonder whether, if I was using the same expression with a teenager, they would be mystified by the expression, or would understand that “counterclockwise” means to turn right as you begin your laps from the twelve o’clock position. Do they even have clocks with hour and minute hands in schools these days, and how many homes have old-style clocks around–rather than digital contraptions on their microwaves, ovens, refrigerators, and TVs? We’ve got the nifty art deco-style clock shown above on the end table next to our bed, but it was a consciously retro purchase to go with our retro house. Otherwise, our timekeeping would all be of the digital variety.

And “clockwise” and “counterclockwise” aren’t the only concepts or phrases that are at risk in the digital era. Will people still say that something that went well came off like clockwork? Will people still say that they worked (or rocked) around the clock? And will taunting people boast that they will clean your clock?

I’m afraid that the clock is ticking on clock-related phrases, and it’s a shame.

House Names

Many of the houses in Stonington have formal names, like “Morning Mist,” designated by signs on the house itself. That’s pretty unusual in my experience; I don’t remember seeing houses being given names in Columbus, for example. I’m not sure exactly why this house-naming tendency is so, but not surprisingly I have a theory. Many of the residents of Stonington owns boats, and the boats are always named. If you’re going to name one object or possession, why not name another? I wouldn’t be surprised if they named their cars, too.

My two favorite names are “Yonder,” shown by the sign above the barn doors above, and “The Snow Goose,” on the trim house below. “Yonder” is a great, now archaic word that dates from the Middle Ages. It indicates something in the distance that is within sight or capable of being identified by a gesture. As a house name, it has a certain mystical quality. And “The Snow Goose” is similarly evocative. It conjures up clear mental images, and it also makes you wonder what caused a prior owner to settle on that name.

Taking Crust

The other day I was characterizing somebody’s action that was pretty darned brazen. The phrase that immediately popped into my mind was “it takes crust,” so that is what I used. To my surprise and disappointment, the other party to the discussion had never heard that phrase before and had no idea what I was saying.

I can identify the source of this particular phrase with precision. It was one of Grandma Webner’s favorites, and always said with a look of abject disgust. It meant that the person in question was acting with unmitigated gall, impertinence, recklessness, and a complete lack of regard for social mores and Grandma’s accepted rules of behavior. Usually there was a certain element of hypocrisy in the mix, too. For example, if somebody with a well-earned reputation for sketchy and dubious behavior insisted that another person be held to the highest standards of conduct in their personal affairs, Grandma would get that look and say “it takes crust for so-and-so to do such-and-such.” And everyone who heard her knew exactly what she meant.

It’s a great little bit of American slang that apparently was much more commonly used in the early 1900s, although it seems to have fallen out of favor recently–as the bewildered reaction to my use of the phrase indicated. I’ve always thought that the phrase must draw from the meaning of “crust” as a kind of protective coating, and reflects that the impertinent actor must be hardened or oblivious to how polite society will react to their conduct. But “crust” is just too good a word to fall out of slang usage entirely, and according to the Urban Dictionary it is now used to described a particular kind of fast and garbled punk music, and it can also refer to a thing or person that is unappealing.

I like Grandma’s sense of the word better, and I’ll continue to use it, explain it when necessary, and do my part to ensure that “it takes crust” doesn’t fall completely out of usage.

“I Hear You”

I’ve noticed there’s a new phrase that, seemingly overnight, has become a staple in virtually every conversation, from simple chit-chat to multi-party business videoconferences.

The phrase is “I hear you.” It is used when one participant in a conversation is responding to an observation or argument that another party to the conversation has just made. The responses now often begin with “I hear you.” The responder might then proceed to agree and raise an additional point or gloss on what was just said, or amplify the point in some way, or follow “I hear you” with “but” and some form of disagreement. But the responder wants to make sure that the first speaker knows that his or her statements has been understood and assimilated, and they aren’t just people talking across each other. The “I hear you” statement is a way to get that point across. (And in a world of sometimes glitchy and frozen video connections, “I hear you” may also signal that you’re not experiencing technical difficulties, too.)

I’ve been interested in the spread of “I hear you,” and I wonder if linguists are, even now, tracing the use of the phrase back to its roots. I think the use of the phrase is a way of showing verbal respect and acknowledgement, even if the phrase might be followed by disagreement. It’s a form of polite, sensitive behavior that is an outgrowth of the desire to make sure that everyone is being heard and their views are being respected. I wonder if “I hear you” might soon become a basic building block of manners in the modern world, as common as “please” and “thank you.”

Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam

Our days often begin with a review of our email boxes to delete the spam. The other day, as I was performing this mindless chore, I wondered: why are random, unwelcome emails (and now, phone calls too) called “spam”?

Even though the internet and email are recent developments in the arc of human history, the true origin of “spam” to refer to unwanted emails seems to be lost in the mists of time. “Spam” apparently is not an acronym, nor is it some kind of direct slam on the canned meat of the same name that is produced by the Hormel Foods Company and is evidently beloved in Hawaii. Instead, the most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that, in the very early days of the internet, undesired email was called “spam” as a reference to the Monty Python spam sketch, in which a diner menu recited by a waitress features multiple dishes made with spam, a gang of Vikings sing a song about spam, and a fed-up British matron is forced to confess that she doesn’t like spam.

Some claim the term “spam” was first used to describe email in 1993, when an early email user mistakenly sent multiple copies of the same email message; others say it dates back to the ’80s. In any case, the fact that there is a lot of spam email (like the spam-oriented dishes on the diner menu) and the spam email is not appreciated (like the diner patron who doesn’t like spam) seems to have been the connection that gave spam email its name.

Language is interesting, and “spam” email is a good example of why. In this instance, some early email user was a Monty Python fan who thought of the connection to the sketch and attached the name, it stuck and was used by early internet users, and then it spread to become the common term used by your iPhone, the filters on your computer, and the world of email users at large. It’s short, it’s as good a name as any, and if you’ve watched that classic Monty Python sketch, you know it’s apt. Like the high-pitched, purse-clutching English lady, we all “don’t like spam“!

Sports Versus Farming In Metaphor Land

Recently I was in a multi-person email exchange at work. The metaphors and similes were flying thick and fast and had taken a decidedly rustic turn when the B.A. Jersey Girl, who as her name suggests doesn’t initially hail from these parts, accused the sturdy Midwesterners involved in the exchange of “going all agro” in our references.

It was a fair comment, but it wasn’t the first time someone had observed that the metaphors and similes being employed weren’t particularly enlightening to all participants in a discussion. Usually, that happens when a non-sports fan finally cries out in frustration at being bombarded with rapid fire, increasingly cryptic sports references.

Both farms and sports are rich sources for the metaphors and similes we use to accentuate our points in colorful, graphic ways. There are more of them than we can possibly list. From the barnyard, we’ve got “fox in the henhouse,” “flown the coop,” “the horse has left the barn,” “chickens coming home to roost,” “strutting like a rooster,” “carrying the water,” “room like a pig pen,” being a “bell cow,” “acting like a sheep,” and “squealing like a stuck pig” — and that’s just “scratching the surface.” From the sports realm, we’ve got “home runs,” “slam dunks,” “fumbles,” “bunnies,” “Hail Marys,” “doing an end around,” “calling balls and strikes,” “blowing the whistle,” “play book,” “the ball’s in their court,” “putting on a full-court press,” “bush league,” and countless others that are “on the bench.” You may have used some of these yourself, and no doubt you can think of others.

I’ve tried to watch the overuse of sports references at work to be mindful of the non-sports fans out in the world; now I’ll also need to be mindful of farming references, too. But it makes me wonder: if you aren’t from the Midwest or other farmland areas, do you sprinkle your conversation with “agro” concepts anyway? And if you don’t use sports and farming metaphors and similes to illustrate your points, what references do you use to replace them?

Useful German Words

Many of us are familiar with the German word schadenfreude.  It refers to the pleasure you feel from observing another person’s misfortune.  Think about the guilty but nevertheless real surge of joy you get when your arch-rival sports team loses a big game, and you’ve captured it.

trachtSchadenfreude is a very useful word.  So why does a specific word for that sensation exist in the German language, but not in English?  What caused the Germans, at some point in the past, to identify that very particular feeling and coin a term for it, and why didn’t somebody in merry old England do likewise?  You can’t tell me that, during the period of one of their countless wars, the British weren’t happy to see the French take a pratfall.  Why didn’t they come up with a word to capture that specific unseemly yet nevertheless real surge of pleasure?

Schadenfreude doesn’t stand alone.  In fact, the Germans have been pretty good at creating lots of words that capture unique feelings or circumstances.  Here are some:

Futterneid — translated as “food jealousy” or “food envy,” it refers to the feeling you have when you go out to dinner with someone and they order food that looks much better than what you ordered, and you then suffer through the meal wishing you’d ordered their dish.

Fernweh — translated as “distance sickness” (the opposite of home sickness), it refers to the overpowering desire to be traveling, preferably to somewhere far away.

Fremdschamen — the uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment you experience when watching someone else go through a personally humiliating experience, like telling an unfunny joke to an audience or having way too much to drink at a work-related function.

Kummerspeck — translated literally as “grief bacon,” it refers to excess weight that is put on by emotional overeating.

Torschlusspanik — translated literally as “gate shut panic,” it identifies the fear that certain opportunities or activities are being closed to you as you get older.

Weltschmerz — the sensation of melancholy and resignation that you experience when your hopeful expectations about what will happen in the world fall disappointingly short . . . again.

We could use such words in English, so the word creators need to get cracking.  And isn’t it interesting how many of those German words describing unique, very precise feelings or conditions can be applied to what we are experiencing in 2020?

British Swear Words

Do our polite and refined friends from across the pond curse?  I know they use words like “bloody” when they want to up the emphasis a notch and demonstrate that they are really miffed, but do they ever actually swear?

Apparently they do!  Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s communications regulator — who even knew they had one! — interviewed more than 200 people to determine how they reacted to an array of rude and offensive terms and swear words, and then ranked them in order of offensiveness.  In order to be sure that they covered every form of communication, they threw in a few well-known hand gestures, too.  Words in the mild category include “bloody,” “bugger,” “damn” and “arse,” as well as “crap.”  (It’s hard to imagine someone with a British accent ever saying “crap,” isn’t it?)  “Ginger” and “minger” — which means an unpleasant or unattractive person — were also placed in the mild category.

The medium category then includes words like “bitch,” “bollocks” (which Americans of my age know because of the Sex Pistols) and “pissed,” as well as words I’ve never heard used, like “munter” (an ugly or excessively drunk person) and “feck” (a milder substitute for you-know-what).  From there we move up to the strong category, which curiously has “bastard” in it — suggesting that the Brits find “bastard” a lot more offensive than we do, perhaps of the connotations of the word in a land that still has royalty and nobility — and “fanny,” which seems pretty mild to me.  The strong category also includes a bunch of British slang I’ve not heard of before.  From there, the list moves up to the strongest category, where the queen mother of curses sits, as expected, atop the swear list pyramid.

The list apparently is to be used by the Brits in their communications, with words rated as mild considered to be okay to use around children, whereas most people thought the “medium” and “strong” words shouldn’t be used until after 9 p.m.  The study also found, encouragingly, that the Brits are increasingly offended by words involving race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

I’m still finding it hard to believe that the Brits ever say “crap.”

The New Words Of 1957

Language is a living thing — ever-changing, morphing and adapting to develop new words to capture and describe new devices, thoughts, and concepts.  Merriam-Webster has come up with a nifty way to illustrate that point.  It’s called the Time Traveler, and it allows you to pick a year and see which new words were first used in print that year.

41hmjsg3yhlSo why not try 1957, the year of my birth and the year of the largest explosion of births in the American Baby Boom?  Just to set the context, it was the second term of the Eisenhower Administration, federal troops were called out to allow nine African-American students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 and started the Space Race, the last episode of I Love Lucy was broadcast and the first episodes of American Bandstand and Perry Mason aired on black and white TVs with rabbit ear antennas, and artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard dominated the popular music charts.

And according to the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler, in 1957 words like bitchin’, chuffed, fantabulous, herky-jerky, hipsterism, lowball, low-rent, magic mushroom, overkill, pothead, rumble strip, scumbag, and Zen-like first appeared in print and made their way into popular lexicon.  “Static cling” was coined — no doubt by a Madison Avenue-type — to describe the annoying condition of clothes that have just come out of the dryer, “gold record” was first used to describe a hit, and somebody thought that “happy camper” was a good way to describe a contented individual.  And more serious words and phrases, like amniocentesis, antiballistic missile, cardiomyopathy, computerize, informed consent, pat down, and transsexual entered the national vocabulary.

Where would we be without words like “low-rent” and “happy camper”?  I’d say that 1957 made our national conversation a little bit richer.

Learning From Words

Cultural anthropologists will tell you that simply learning about individual words in a language can teach you a lot about a people.  The fact that the Inuit and Yupik languages feature many different words for snow — words like “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving sled” — gives you a pretty good idea that the Inuit and Yupik live in a climate where snow is prevalent and minute differences in the form of snow can be really important.

li-24-schadenfreude-620x412So, what does it tell you about the German culture that Germans developed the words schadenfreude and gluckschmerz?  Schadenfreude refers to the sensation of feeling pleasure at the suffering of others, and gluckschmerz means feeling unhappy about the good fortune of others.  Neither of these words really has a close synonym in the English language.  That indicates that the Germans felt a need to capture and express precise sentiments that the English apparently weren’t experiencing all that often.

Schadenfreude and gluckschmerz suggest that the Germans are very emotionally sensitive, closely attuned to what’s happening to their perceived rivals, and deeply competitive with those people.  It’s worth noting that these precisely expressive German words seem to get borrowed most frequently when English speakers are talking about what has happened to rival sports teams or hated political opponents — which gives you a good sense of the intense, visceral feelings that Germans must be experiencing often enough to invent specific words for them.

So, are there words in the American idiom that would tell cultural anthropologists something meaningful about our culture?  Well, when you think about it, we seem to have a lot of words that describe, with subtle differences, people acting like jerks.

Speaking Mainish

America is a land of different accents. There’s the famous Southern drawl, of course, and the rapid-fire Brooklyn accent, and the quasi-Scandinavian inflections in the upper Midwest that were so effectively lampooned in the movie Fargo. There are so many regional accents in America, in fact, that the lower Midwest, where the Webner clan hails from, is reputed to be the most accent-free part of the country.

Lifelong Mainers have their own unique accent. In fact, calling it an accent really doesn’t do it sufficient justice — it’s like a slightly different language that should be called something like Mainish. When you’re first introduced to Mainespeak it takes some getting used to. It’s a combination of a slow, drawn-out, multi-syllabic cadence and different approaches to pronunciation that produce a way of speaking that feels ancient and deeply rooted. “There” gets turned into they-yuh. Nobody likes pronouncing the letter “r” at the end of words, either — it’s as if it is some junk letter that shouldn’t be part of the alphabet in the first place. So you can just call us the Webnahs. And there are undoubtedly other eddies and currents and backwaters in the river of Mainespeak that we haven’t even been exposed to yet — such as when a fellow I was talking to mentioned the lanch of a boat.

It’s curious and delightful being here among the Mainers and listening to them talk. You might say we’re getting an immersion course in Mainish.