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Home Again

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.

 

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Sea Change

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 o...

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 of his Last Will and Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an undergraduate English major at UC Berkeley, it never occurred to me to be a STEM major. In fact, that acronym hadn’t been invented. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Word on the street today is that if you are not majoring in one of those areas you might as well crawl into a cave with your literature, philosophy  and history books and be happy and useless away from society. I contend that liberal arts majors have much to offer, even in today’s STEM-heavy environment: they are well rounded and can think and write clearly and logically.

Which brings me to Shakespeare. As a senior, I took a seminar with the best professor I ever encountered—as an undergraduate, graduate student or as an English teacher myself. (I’m talking about you, Joseph Kramer.) He once made the statement that any three lines of Shakespeare could be read as a microcosm of the world, and went on to demonstrate that point repeatedly and brilliantly.

Which brings me to today’s jargon. Recently I wrote about clichés and jargon that originated in Shakespeare’s plays. Of course they weren’t clichés at the time of their origin, but they did catch on. A more recent cliché, or bit of jargon, is “sea change.” I see it everywhere; no simple “changes” exist any more. They are all monumental, life-altering “sea changes.” If the price of oil were to drop five dollars a barrel, that would be a sea change. If Donald Trump were to fix him comb-over to the left rather than to the right, that would be a sea change. (If he were to remove the small animal that lives atop his head, I would grant that would truly be a sea change.)

The word originated in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” Here is how he used it:

                                                    Full fathom five thy father lies,

                                                          Of his bones are coral made:

                                                   Those are pearls that were his eyes:

                                                          Nothing of him that doth fade,

                                                   But doth suffer a sea-change

                                                   Into something rich and strange.

We’ve lost the hyphen and also lost—or changed—the meaning. Until quite recently, “sea change” indicated an enormous transformation. Now, any old change will suffice. I wish the original meaning were still appreciated.  How long until someone writes about “an enormous sea change”?

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Filed under All things having to do with the English language