14 Jan 2006


Posted by AC

I enjoy puns, and wordplay, possibly to a fault. If I remember, I’ll post some shaggy dogs at some point.

I read somewhere earlier today about someone sidling up to a bar, and that made me think about the word sidle.  It’s one of those words I only know from context, and that context is alwasy sidling up to a bar.  I inferred that the definition was just “to approach”, but I looked it up today to learn that it means to approach or move sideways (or furtively).

That, in turn, made me think of words that I (and others) have learned either just by context, or in some other way don’t know the full definition.  For example, yesterday, I’ve have thought nothing of saying that I sidled up to an empty bar.  Now, that sounds a little silly.  I made a similar foot-in-mouth error when I talked about the duffers at Kesmai to a visiting VIP thinking I was talking about golfers.

I find those sorts of language-overreaching mistakes embarrassing to make, and embarrassing to catch in conversation, but I was thinking it might be fun to write a little prose that made extensive use of not-quite-right English.  In the meanwhile, enjoy one of my favorite childhood rhymes:

“One Fine Day…” rhyme.

One fine day in the middle of the night,

Two dead boys* got up to fight, [*or men]

Back to back they faced each other,

Drew their swords and shot each other,

One was blind and the other couldn’t, see

So they chose a dummy for a referee.

A blind man went to see fair play,

A dumb man went to shout “hooray!”

A paralysed donkey passing by,

Kicked the blind man in the eye,

Knocked him through a nine inch wall,

Into a dry ditch and drowned them all,

A deaf policeman heard the noise,

And came to arrest the two dead boys,

If you don’t believe this lie is true,

Ask the blind man he saw it too!

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One Response to “Wordplay”

  1. Clinton has been responsible for educating me on at least 2 of these context-misleading words:

    (1) TEMPER. “He has quite a temper” means the opposite of what it says. In American English, at least, we use the term ‘temper’ as if it’s synonymous with anger, where in fact it is that which tempers our anger. Having a bad temper means exactly what it says.

    (2) ABJECT. I never heard the word ‘abject’ except in the phrase “abject poverty” — so I thought it meant extreme. Apparently it means bodily filth. Abject poverty is poverty so extreme that one lives in one’s own filth.

    (3) GEEZER. This one I didn’t learn from Clinton. I learned it from watching Guy Ritchie’s movies. American dictionaries list standard usage as actual meaning, but I’m confident its origins put it in the same camp with these other words. A geezer is a guy. It’s cockney slang. An old geezer is an old guy, but you could have young geezers as well. Since Americans only ever hear the word ‘geezer’ when it is preceded by the word ‘old’ the two words have gotten stuck together in our minds. In American usage, “old geezer” is now redundant.

    (4) GUNSEL. Again, the dictionary reflects usage, despite the fact that usage is based on a misunderstanding of the term. My dictionary defines ‘gunsel’ as “a criminal carrying a gun.” It goes on to say, “ORIGIN early 20th cent. (denoting a homosexual youth): from Yiddish gendzel ‘little goose,’ influenced in sense by gun.” We have Dashiell Hammett to thank for the confusion. In The Maltese Falcon, private detective Sam Spade tells Gutman, “Keep your gunsel away from me!” Yes, Wilmer is the kid with the two big handguns, but no, ‘gunsel’ did not refer to his guns. It was street slang for a young boy kept by an older man in a homosexual relationship. This is why both Gutman and Wilmer take such offense. Fortunately for Hammett, the censors didn’t understand the slang. Unfortunately, no one else seems to have gotten the joke either.

    (5) CASH. These days, “cold hard cash” means paper dollar bills, despite the fact that they are neither cold nor hard. For most of the history of the language, only metal counted as cash. Paper money was exactly the opposite.



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