And Still We Manage to Communicate

I use my Merriam-Webster online dictionary every day, and sometimes I find interesting articles or interesting people wiriting them. In this case, both.

In an article called “An Oxford-Educated Southerner in Berlin,”*I was delighted to read about a journalist, Robert Lane Greene, who has lived lots of places—

Johnson City, Tennessee (birthplace)
Little Rock, Arkansas
Omaha, Nebraska
Marietta, Georgia
New Orleans, Louisiana
Hamburg, Germany
Oxford, England
Brooklyn, New York
Berlin, Germany
(and now London, England)

—speaks lots of languages**

fluent:
German
Spanish
French
Portuguese
Danish
conversant:
Russian
Arabic
Italian

and still sounds like the sort of person who doesn’t think he’s too cool for school (or me, with my one language), you know? I love this:

I use y’all freely, and will duel (pistols, dawn) anyone who tells me not to. My accent gets a little southern lilt when I go back to Georgia, where my father’s family all still live.

Those of you who know me well, though, will understand why this delights me so:

Being a rootless cosmopolitan has its upsides (never boring) and its downsides (the mind-numbing stress of moving itself). But I never quite imagined that a major downside would be the inability to speak without self-consciousness. In a given day, I speak baby-talk Danish and English with my 14-month-old, grown-up Danish and English with my wife, English with my 12-year-old, and both German and careful Euro-English with assorted foreigners at work. My old normal English—very fast, slangy, moderately profane, slightly mumbled General American, lightly influenced by decades in the South—is limited to my few intimates in Berlin.

I’m not rootless, but have traveled some and have a few friends whose first language is not my first langage, and others whose English is spoken with an accent definitely not mine. And still we manage to communicate.

*This article is no longer available, so you’ll have to take my word for it about the title and excerpts.
**I got this list from Greene’s personal website, which also no longer exists, though it was there in late September 2016, when I originally published this article on my other website.

May You Live in Interesting Times!

One looks for the good, I think. So recently some of us have been repeating that old saw, May you live in interesting times.

A Chinese curse, we’re told. Or a blessing. May you live in interesting times.

But … it’s not Chinese. 🙂

I know, I know, I’m a wet blanket about these things—but it’s what I do for a living. I’m an editor. I check things. Fortunately I didn’t have to do the footwork on this one: Garston O’Toole over at Quote Investigator has the straight poop:

The British statesman Joseph Chamberlain was the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and future diplomat Austen Chamberlain. As noted previously, Austen asserted in a 1936 speech that “living in interesting times” was considered to be a curse in Chinese culture. Curiously, Joseph [also] used the same distinctive phrase during addresses he delivered in 1898 and 1901.

There’s a lot more to read at QI, which traces usage of the phrase from 1898 right up to modern times. You can also read about it at Wikipedia.

Bottom line: You can’t blame the Chinese for this, friends! But may you have an interesting year nonetheless. 🙂

A Lighter Shade of Pale, Beyond?

We’ve got an exciting national election cycle goin’ on here in the good ol’ US of A, with one candidate making some pretty interesting claims and the opposing party reacting with outrage. (See how I did that?) My Irish immigrant husband has spent hours watching debates and newscasts and commentaries on the television. He also follows the news online, where he saw a tweet remarking that something a candidate had said was so outrageous it was “beyond the pale.”

The Irishman was surprised to hear it.

“Have you ever heard the phrase beyond the pale?” he asked. “Do you know what it means?”

Of course I do. My parents were wordies, remember? This is one of those phrases I grew up with. It means “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” Synonyms might be: unacceptable, unseemly, improper, unsuitable, unreasonable, unforgivable, intolerable, disgraceful, deplorable, outrageous, scandalous, shocking, exceptionable, uncivilized. You might say someone was out of line. You might say it just isn’t done.

The Irishman persisted. “Yes, but do you know what it really means?”

Oh, honey. I married a Dubliner, didn’t I? (I’ve made quite a study of Irish history, aided by the magnificence and sheer number of Dublin bookstores and my husband’s willingness to indulge me in them.) Yes, I know what beyond the pale really means.

It means, put simply, anything outside Dublin. Americans do know the phrase as “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior,” but I suspect many of you may not know from whence it came.

It all starts with the dictionary (as so many things around here do). Pale is most commonly used as an adjective or a verb, but there’s an older meaning, a noun:

1 a archaic : a palisade of stakes : an enclosing barrier : paling
b obsolete : a restraining boundary : defense
2 a : a pointed stake driven into the ground in forming a palisade or fence
b : a slat fastened to a rail at top and bottom for fencing : picket
3 a : a space or field having bounds : an enclosed or limited region or place : enclosure
b : a territory or district within certain bounds or under a particular jurisdiction
4 : an area (as of conduct) or the limits (as of speech) within which one is privileged or protected especially by custom (as from censure or retaliation)
<conduct that was beyond the pale>
5 a obsolete : a vertical stripe (as on a coat)
b : a perpendicular stripe in an escutcheon

The word is Middle English, from Middle French pal (a stake), from the Latin palus. It dates from the 1300s, and is a doublet of the word pole, which has the same Latin origin. So a pale, in the Middle Ages, was a wooden stake, often sharpened on the top, meant to be driven into the ground, often to be used (with others) as a fence or a boundary. Impale, you see, also stems from this word. (As a side note, the adjective pale, while just as old a word, comes from the Latin pallidum [pale or colorless], from which we also get the word pallid.)

So what’s that (sniff) “anything outside Dublin” business? It’s history. The Norman invasion in 1169 brought Ireland under the control of English kings, but as time went on and the Anglo-Normans assimilated with the Irish locals, this control waned. (The English had a lot of infighting to look after on their own island.) By the Tudor era in the 1500s the English crown really only exerted power in and around Dublin—and they’d built a fence to protect it. Really, it was just a fortified ditch. A pale.

And the language, the vernacular, reflected that: the pale was “a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go.”

Beyond the pale, then, was anything outside the boundary. Wikipedia says, “Within the confines of the Pale the leading gentry and merchants lived lives not too different from those of their counterparts in England, save for the constant fear of attack from the Gaelic Irish. The idea of the Pale was inseparable from the notion of a separate Anglo-Irish polity and culture. After the 17th century and especially after the Anglican Reformation and the Plantation of Ulster, the “Old English” settlers were gradually assimilated into the Irish population … The term continues to be used in contemporary Irish speech to refer to County Dublin and its commuter towns, generally critically—for example, a government department may be criticised for concentrating its resources on the Pale.”

See? My husband was a little surprised to find the phrase common parlance in this country, but he’s forgotten that the phrase came here with English settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—when the Pale would have been a thing—and it stayed here.