Archive for July, 2011

Making love in 1959

July 22, 2011

“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,” Philip Larkin famously wrote in Annus Mirabilis. According to his Wikipedia biography it actually began for him in 1945, but he seems to have liked the rhyming possibilities of three (me, LP) more than those of five.

For me, the year was 1959, and what began was making love. It may not have been the year of my first sexual experience, but it was the first time in my life that it was called making love. It also happened to be the year of “the end of the Chatterley ban” that Larkin alludes to in his poem.

Coincidentally, it was in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, released in 1959 that I last heard to make love used (by Cary Grant’s character to Eva Marie Saint’s)  in its old-fashioned sense of  ‘to pay amorous attention; to court, woo’ (as given by the Oxford English dictionary, which adds “Now somewhat arch.“).

The OED also gives a few pre-1959 citations of the sense  ‘to engage in sexual intercourse,’ including one from Hemingway, but they are ambiguous. In fact, making love could well mean whatever it is that people do to each other when they are in love, possibly but not necessarily including sexual intercourse. When Cole Porter wrote (in Night and Day), “And its torment won’t be through /Till you let me spend my life making love to you,” it’s unlikely that he envisioned the song’s first-person subject to want to spend the rest of his life courting or wooing (or even paying amorous attention to) it’s second-person object.

Then there is the movie Let’s Make Love, which was not released until 1960. The verb phrase of the title was used only, as far as I remember, in the song-and-dance number performed by Marilyn Monroe and Frankie Vaughan. For its time it was quite suggestive — Marilyn, resplendent in a plunging gown, undoes Frankie’s bow tie! She takes off her high-heeled shoes! — but evidently tame enough to receive the MPAA  seal of approval. Given the year of release, the song (by Cahn and Van Heusen) was, in all likelihood, written… in 1959.

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(C)HUTZPAH

July 19, 2011

This the second time that I am coming to the linguistic defense of a right-wing politician for whom I have no regard. The first time was in 2004, when George W. Bush was ridiculed for referring to the people of Greece as Grecians. As I elaborated in a later essay, Grecian, as distinct from Greek, is a good way to differentiate between the people of Greece and the Greek ethnicity, since some of the Slavs, Vlachs and Arvanites (ethnic Albanians) in Greece may choose not to identify themselves as Greeks, while the Greeks of Cyprus are Cypriots but not Grecians. This distinction is similar to that between Serbian and Serb, Somalian and Somali, Laotian and Lao, and there are many other instances where a country is named for its dominant (but not only) ethnic group, which in turn may be represented in other countries.

This time the matter is not terminology but pronunciation: Michele Bachmann’s saying the word commonly spelled chutzpah with the sound /ʧ/. This, of course, is the usual English way of pronouncing ch, as in church, except for some Greek-derived words, like character and architect, in which the sound is /k/.  (The words of the chemic family, originally Arabic, have also come to us by way of Byzantine Greek.)

Of course, one would think that someone with two instances of ch in her name, each pronounced differently, would be sensitive to such nuances. But one would be mistaken.

(C)hutzpa(h) is supposed to be pronounced with a /χ/ or /x/ sound, as ch is pronounced in German or Scottish words like Bach or loch. But neither in German nor in Scots does ch represent this sound at the beginning of a word; the only languages in which it does so, to my knowledge, are the West Slavic ones (Czech, Slovak, Polish), and why should that fact influence English? Especially since there is an old English tradition of representing the voiceless velar or uvular (commonly called guttural) fricative, in words taken from languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, with kh.

I already commented in an essay on the letter H that Orthodox Jews have a special predilection for using ch to represent the /χ/ sound of Yiddish, especially in words that are originally Hebrew where the sound is represented by ח (ḥet) (as in names like Chaim and Chana). While in modern Israeli Hebrew this letter is in fact read as /χ/, this has not always been the case; the older pronunciation (still practiced by some Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews) is more like /h/, as reflected in the English forms of Biblical names like  Hezekiah and Hannah.

Besides, most English-speaking people don’t bother pronouncing the “foreign” sound /x/ or /χ/. With the Murdoch name all over the media these days, I have yet to hear it spoken in the Scottish way, like this; everyone pronounces the final ch as /k/. And most people, except a few bubble-dwellers like Michele Bachmann (pronounced like Bockman), pronounce chutzpah with an /h/ sound. Why, then, not spell it hutzpah?

English, by George

July 12, 2011

In a previous post I noted the tendency of American publishers to Americanize the English of British mystery writers, specifically Ian Rankin. Oddly enough, this isn’t done with the English of Elizabeth George. Only the punctuation is American: double quotes where a British press would have single ones (‘inverted commas’), and periods and commas inside the quotes regardless of logic. But the spelling (kerb, neighbour, gaol) and vocabulary (torch, lorry, mobile) remain consistently British, and the many turns of phrase that distinguish British from North American English bear witness to Elizabeth George’s mastery of her chosen idiom.

For it is chosen: Elizabeth George is American, and the American editions of her books are in fact the original editions. Reading her is, then, like listening to a virtuoso performance. But any virtuoso will hit an occasional wrong note, and every so often one finds a lapse that will make one wince.

The most common  is her fondness for the verb phrase (to) run interference for (someone); I’ve found in at least three of her books, in the sense of providing support or cover. I wonder if Elizabeth George knows that this is a blatant Americanism (the OED labels it as orig. and chiefly U.S.), originating in American football; nowadays it’s mainly used metaphorically, while the literal sense is covered by blocking. According to the prominent British linguist Geoff Pullum (in a private communication to me), this phrase has not yet entered British English.

In her novel A Traitor to Memory, a violinist muses about the fact that his teacher never became a concertmaster. But the use of concertmaster to designate the leading violinist of an orchestra in the United Kingdom is very recent; the traditional, and still predominant, term, is Leader. In a post dated 1999 in a BBC online forum on the subject, a British musician writes, “Every orchestra I’ve played in the first violinist has been billed as the Leader.” It is only from a post dated 2006 that we learn, “Leader is a British term, Concertmaster is international but is gradually catching on here.” According to a recent posting by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, “The SCO is seeking a new Leader (Concertmaster).” Butl A Traitor to Memory was published in 2001, and it seems unlikely that an English musician at the time covered by the novel would have thought of a concertmaster rather than a leader.

And then there is a curious typo in With No One as Witness: “undo reverence” instead of “undue reverence.” A typo, yes, but a distinctly North American one. In all the varieties of British English that I know of, do and due are not homophones, and such a typo would be highly improbable for someone whose native pronunciation has the distinction.

Elizabeth George is very gracious in extending profuse thanks to the “various individuals both in the United States and in England” who have helped produce her wonderful books. But none of them seem to have the linguistic skill needed to prevent shibboleths.