||Familiarity Breeds Quotation
by I. M. Owen
QUOTATIONS OUT OF PLACE: Some quotations, especially from Shakespeare, are so familiar that they are used by writers who have forgotten -- or perhaps never knew -- their original context and hence their meaning. Mavor Moore draws my attention to a Contract Bridge column in the Globe and Mail that says:
One notrump tells partner you have 16 to 18 points, notrump distribution and cattered strength. In one fell swoop, it describes the true nature of your hand and frequently makes it possible for partner to judge immediately the best final contract.
Fell means "deadly," and the phrase at (not in) one fell swoop is from Macduff's reception of the news of the mass murder of his family by Macbeth's hired thugs:
What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam At one fell swoop?
And then there's salad days. I haven't got an example at hand, but I often see the phrase used in such a way that it's clear that the writer thinks it means a time of prosperity: he has come into his salad days. It's from Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra is raving about Antony, and her lady-in- waiting Charmian teases her by recalling that she used to talk just the same way about her first lover, Julius Caesar. Cleopatra wittily retorts:
My salad days, When I was green in judgement, cold in blood, To say, as I said then.
Or take this: the Warsaw Pact countries are producing a sea change in Eastern Europe. If he editors of Report on Business Magazine will look up The Tempest, act one, scene two, and read the song in which Ariel describes (most unscientifically) the effects of submersion on a drowned man, I'd like them then to tell me what this has to do with the changes in Eastern Europe.
NEW DEMOCRATS: That's what members of the NDP are called. Robert Fulford sends me an article from the Toronto Star by the NDP historian Desmond Morton, in which he calls them NDPers throughout. Fulford writes:
It sounds as if it were invented by someone trying to be awkward and repellent. I could understand it if it were used by the party's enemies, but its friends and members frequently use it ... I think it's barbaric. What's wrong with "New Democrat"? In speech it has the same number of syllables; in print it doesn't take up that much more space. Perhaps you, as an old CCFer, should take up this cause. It occurs to me that "NDPer" may have arisen somehow as an echo of "CCFer," which of course was necessary because there was no equivalent of "New Democrat" to be derived from "Co-operative Commonwealth Federation."
I entirely agree. I never liked CCFer much either, but as Fulford says it was unavoidable. The equivalent in our other language, however, has a certain charm: cecefiste. I used it in preference. But I'm afraid ennepediste wouldn't do. Fulford goes on to raise a related point:
On the weekend of the NDP convention in Winnipeg, someone should have made a tally of those who used the term "NDP party" and given the worst offender a Dumbest Broadcaster of the Year Award. We could indict these people for redundancy, but would they know the meaning of the word?
Oh yes, I think most of them understand that redundancy means "unemployment."
PAIRS AND SNARES: I borrow this heading from Fowler because I can't think of a better one. It refers to words derived from the same roots that have acquired differentiated meanings over the centuries, but are now often
confused with each other. In the October issue I gave the example of masterful and masterly. Another such pair is fortunate and fortuitous. Both come ultimately from Latin fors, "chance." The first, directly derived from Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fors, means "lucky"; the second, from fortuitus, retains the original meaning "accidental." In his Toronto Star column last November Dalton Camp wrote: the Prime Minister's visit to the Soviet Union has been fortuitous, which suggests that the PM boarded the wrong plane, thinking it was going to Baie-Comeau.
Another pair is climatic and climactic. In the same column (fortuitously) Camp or the Star typesetter provides a beautiful example: now that the President has ... embraced Gorbachev ... further endorsements are. anti-climatic. Perhaps too much thaw will bring on the greenhouse effect.
Precipitous means, literally or metaphorically, "steep" like a precipice. Precipitate means "headlong, rash, overhasty." A precipitous fall in stock prices shouldn't tempt us into precipitate action.
BADLY: In a review in the November issue, speaking of the difficulties of reviewing anthologies, I said when I don't mention everything I feel badly. A reader at the University of Waterloo Library has sent me a photocopy with these words underlined and the remark "I know you're just testing us. You feel rather well, therefore, can feel bad." Strictly speaking, she's right, and 61 per cent of the American Heritage Usage Panel agree with her that feel badly shouldn't be used in writing, though 55 per cent accept it in speech. As I'd never say I feel bad unless I meant "I feel wicked" (a confession I'm usually careful not to make), and as one of my rules is that you should never write anything you wouldn't say, I'll stick with the 39 per cent, and feel good about it.