Thursday, September 6, 2007

Gitter Done


How do you suppose the African slaves brought to America learned to speak English (or Spanish, Portuguese, or French)? Few were allowed to learn to read or write, but they must have learned to understand and speak English pretty quickly. Would the slave owners have taught them formally, or, more likely, did they learn out of necessity through listening and observing? Maybe their captors used a point-and-say method. There are studies of the entry of African words and grammar into English, but I’ve never run across anything about how the slaves learned to speak the foreign language. Is there anything in the historical records, journals, diaries of the slave owners?


From an e-mail:

Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd rather have been talking. ~ Aristotle

This sounded to me like the stuff attributed to the Dalai Lama (“Cooking and lovemaking should be approached with abandon”) which probably originated in a woman’s magazine or Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes (not that I have anything against either of those). It turns out that the urban legend tracker,, has a section on quotes, but this supposedly Aristotelian quote was not listed. I suppose it’s conceivable that Aristotle said something along those lines and this is a poor translation. I wouldn’t know. (That is, I wouldn’t know what Aristotle said, but I know modern style when I read it.)


Local real estate company sign: Nubuck Tweed. Its logo is a fox hunting scene, the silhouette of horseback riders, horses with bobbed or tied tails, and dogs. I wonder if the company’s owner named his or her kids Nubuck and Tweed.


In Life at the Bottom, Theodore Dalrymple wrote that sometimes his patients/clients will say, “I caught pregnant” or “I caught for a boy”, as if they had nothing to do with getting pregnant. “Caught pregnant” could sound like “got pregnant” (also rather a passive expression), but “caught for a boy” is new to me. In Our Culture, What’s Left of It, Dalrymple also questions the substitution of the word or idea of depression for unhappiness. You can get drugs for depression, but unhappiness ~ you might have to change your life. A couple more linguistic notes from Dalrymple’s Romancing Opiates: the phrase cold turkey, as in sudden withdrawal from opiates, refers to the goose flesh addicts get during withdrawal. And: “The ironical argot of the addicts is one of the few even minimally attractive aspects of their way of life.” I learned that pokes means pockets, and of course in some areas of the U.S. people say poke for bag (or sack, in other areas).

A final word from Dalrymple, not on language:

I was working in a hospital in what was then still Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. I was still of the callow ~ and fundamentally lazy ~ youthful opinion that nothing in the world could change until everything changed, in which case a social system would arise in which it would be no longer necessary for anyone to be good.


They have boot sales in England, and I don’t mean they sell boots. They call the trunk of a car the boot, so I guess a boot sale must be like a mobile yard sale or garage sale. I love finding new places to shop and I think this is an idea we should import.


I was trying to explain “Gitter done” to one of my students, a Chinese woman, who asked if it meant to get a woman to do it. Why don’t we say, “Get him done” anyway?


Herb and Mike both said that “back in the day” was a line in a 1993 Ahmad song, but I wouldn’t assume that was the first coinage of the phrase.

Herb wrote, “I like ‘back in the day’ because it has style, and it doesn't mean the same thing as olden days or good old days. ... I've seen absolutely no support for the idea it's a black expression.”

But Herb, Ahmad Jones is a black hip-hop singer.


From letter to advice columnist: “I love my friend and would find myself sorely amiss without him.” Wrong, muddled, incorrect ~ she is probably all those things, but here’s a case where tin ear meets leaden tongue.

Here’s another: “She will be dearly missed.” You can love someone dearly, but can you miss someone dearly?


Not long ago I mentioned that a “green” hotel out west has replaced its Gideon Bibles with an Al Gore book in each room. Now a Roman Catholic priest in England has set up a confessional booth made of recycled doors to take confessions about recycling sins. This is an easy sort of religion, once you accept it. At least, my sins of carbon emission and sins of waste commission are much easier to fix than my old-fashioned sins. All I have to do is buy some carbon credits. But as I wrote before, since I’m not actually buying them from the company that’s selling them, I do it mentally. I’m an independent. I know that somewhere in the world there’s a whole village that doesn’t use paper towels. They balance me out. You know, it would be a great idea to give carbon credits as wedding gifts, birthday gifts, and so on. Couples could sign up with the carbon credit registry, and you could start carbon credit accounts for newborn babies and add to their account on every birthday.

(Wait ~ are we headed back toward buying and selling indulgences? I smell a reformation in the wind.)

Here’s another example of the balance of the universe: I was just wondering if PETA people object to referring to pets (“companion animals”) as “it” rather than he or she. They do compare animals to people (e.g., the use of animals is compared ethically to black slavery). PETA cosmically balances out dog-fight promoter Michael Vick. There’s a weird twist of history.


Mike Sykes pointed out that it was redundant for me to say “sharia law”. Sharia is sufficient. In connection with this, he mentioned “RAS” which I believe is the Royal Astronomical Society? And I guess too many people call it the RAS Society? That’s like saying “ATM machine” (automated teller machine machine). I’m sure you can think of similar examples. But Arabic words are relatively new to us over here. Some of them may undergo the kind of adaptation that other foreign words have in English. We don’t know how it will shake out yet.


My Yahoo e-mail suddenly stopped filtering spam a couple of weeks ago, and when I try to write to the Yahoo service mirage, I only get an automated response. I may have to change my e-mail address; but I think I can continue to use Any ideas about what’s wrong with Yahoo? Any suggestions for a new name?

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