Reader. suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
Tag Archives: Mark Twain
Mark Twain traveled widely, both for pleasure and exploration and for delivering humorous speeches to welcoming audiences. Here is his take on French, both the people and their language.
“In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French. I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
Mark Twain traveled extensively, in the United States, in Europe, and in the Middle East. He was quite critical of the way the German language is constructed. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he wrote the following:
She had exactly the German way; whatever was in her mind to be delivered, whether a mere remark, or a sermon, or a cyclopedia, or the history of a war, she would get it into a single sentence or die. Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of the Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.
Who isn’t? Mark Twain wrote, “My memory was never loaded with anything but blank cartridges.”
Life on the Mississippi
My husband and I just returned from a trip of over three weeks, first to the East Coast to cheer on our incredible grandson as he graduated from college, and then to Central Europe for a trip with nine other graduates of UC Berkeley (Go, Bears!). We were in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany, concentrating on the major cities of Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Prague, and Berlin.
Being a language nut, I was particularly interested in trying to figure out words that were cognates or somehow resembled English words. In Poland, I did see some I could figure out (and plenty I couldn’t). But Hungarian, apparently, is unlike any other language in the world. Some say it has a distant relationship to Finnish, but Hungarians reject that idea. I was at a total loss and understood nothing except “pizza” and “espresso.” Czech and Slovakian were almost as incomprehensible to me, but German was at least partially understandable, except for the fact that one word may consist of three other words all strung together—and German makes you wait for the verb at the end of the sentence. Mark Twain wrote a very funny essay on the German language, and if I weren’t brain dead from jet lag I’d make an effort to find it.
We visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, a shattering experience. We saw Holocaust memorials in every country, but the most rewarding experience for me was spending four hours in the Museum of German History in Berlin. An entire enormous floor is dedicated to Germany from WWI to the present, and nothing was sugarcoated or omitted from the years of Hitler’s rise through the end of WWII. Many atrocities were shown and acknowledged. Schoolchildren visit and learn about their country’s past. I left hopeful that hideous past will not be repeated in Germany and Austria. I am not naive enough to think the world will be cleansed of atrocities, but some seem to have died and been buried. I can only hope that will be true for the many current horrors in Africa and elsewhere.
“Gentleman” is not a synonym for just any man or male. It specifically refers to a noble or at least an honorable man, not just any human with XY chromosomes. And yet a day rarely passes that I don’t hear this word misused:
“The driver was clocked at 80 mph in the residential neighborhood and finally came to a stop when he crashed into a brick wall. The gentleman exited the vehicle and was placed under arrest.”
“The gentleman exited the vehicle.” (How about “The driver/man got out of the car”?) Chances are someone who endangers people by driving recklessly is no gentleman.
Similarly, “lady” is also misused in a parallel way, although not as frequently. There is a difference between “lady,” “woman” and “female.” Words have connotations that directly affect your writing.
As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Aim for lightning.