Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Extra Virgin?

Argument over ownership of frying pan
leaves man with third degree burns,
stepbrother with 11 stitches.

I’m having a bit of trouble with language these days. I think this is because I was confronted today with the phrase, “extra virgin.”Now I know that extra virgin when applied to olive oil means the first pressing of the olives, but how did such a description emerge? What could possibly be “extra” virgin? Obviously you can relate the “first pressing” to the first intercourse, but what could make either experience extra? Somehow to me this sounds much like saying someone “is a little bit pregnant.” It simply makes no sense, yet it is a commonly used phrase. Perhaps it means one extra virgin at a party for virgins and their prospective suitors, if not, what? Anyway, this seems a special case, because usually our language problems have to do with archaic usages, phrases from the past that have somehow retained their meaning even though their origins may be obscure to most users, usages that I suppose could be labeled “survivals.”

For example, a few years back, when my son was still small, I was taking him fishing. We were driving up an unpaved and very rough mountain road when I observed, “it’s really washboardee (ignore for the moment there is no such word) and my son asked, “what’s a washboard?” Obviously there was no way he could have known what a washboard is/was as they disappeared in our culture long before he was born. In this case he genuinely did not know what I meant although I suppose he might have figured it out as having something to do with the rough road.
But we routinely use phrases completely out of date that still carry well understood meanings, or at least I think they do. “Hold your horses,” for example, pretty clearly relates to controlling your impatience. “Waiting until the cows come home” would appear to have much the same connotation. Perhaps it is the words “hold” and “waiting” that convey the basic meaning. Such sayings I find of great interest because they somehow seem to convey meanings for most people even though they have never been near either horses or cows. There are some cases, however, where it is difficult to see how something could have a meaning without actually knowing the history or circumstances surrounding it. A little boy asking his father, for example, “what is clockwise?” Being born in a digital age, the concept of clockwise would have no meaning or connotation at all unless it was explained.

Then there are phrases like “burning the midnight oil.” As using oil for lighting was mostly discontinued quite a long ago, long before most people had any experience of it at all, it is hard to see how meaning emerges from this, but somehow it does (at least I think it does, maybe in this case because it does still occur if only rarely). If you say to someone, “I see you’ve been burning the midnight oil,” don’t they seem to grasp the concept? Similarly, if you say “I think I bought a pig in a poke,” don’t they somehow seem to understand the meaning, even though in this case the meaning comes from a relatively obscure fairground practice of deception that disappeared a long time ago. And how about, “he was hoisted on his own petard?” How many people have any idea what a petard was? And yet, somehow, it seems to me, people grasp the basic meaning of this phrase (I think). Then there is something like, “taking her down a peg or two.” I suspect most everyone understands the basic meaning here, but do they associate it with the tuning of musical instruments where the phrase originated in the 16th century?

Some of our commonly used phrases do have intrinsic meanings that have nothing to do with history. “He’s a hard nut to crack,” for example, or “nod off,” or “nip something in the bud.” Even something like “grist for the mill,” can have a contemporary association even though it obviously arose in the past. I guess even something like “put him out to grass,” contains meaning for most people, even though it refers to what is done with horses and raising horses is not something everyone has experienced. “The die is cast” would also probably be meaningful to most people even with no personal experience of that kind of work. “Fresh as a daisy” has an obvious meaning, as, I think, does “putting the cart before the horse,” even if you know nothing of either carts or horses.

There are, of course, many sayings and phrases that have meaning only to those individuals completely conversant with the particular culture they reside in. “He hit a home run,” for example, does not have meaning to those who know nothing of American baseball. Some phrases would not be heard any longer because of obvious culture changes in language. The phrase, “the fag-end,” is not likely to be heard in our culture any longer because the meaning of the word “fag” has changed. The fag-end would not necessarily have been meaningful previously either if one was not acquainted with the weaving industry. Some phrases elude me completely although they must have had some historical anchor, “don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs,” is an example.

Slang has to be the subject of a a much more detailed study and I hesitate to mention it here. But let me offer just one example of how difficult and culturally astute you have to be to always “get it.” When I was a young boy, hanging out in the pool hall where I was not supposed to be, I often heard someone say things to the effect that “it was like shit through a tin horn.” This never made any sense to me whatsoever and I wondered about it for a long time (as I am not very bright). Suddenly one day it came to me, the phrase actually was “shit through a Tinhorn,” a Tinhorn being slang for an Easterner (sometimes a gambler) in the West who was unfamiliar with the food, customs, and etc. Slang changes so fast nowadays that one generation can barely communicate with the next one and the meanings are so culturally embedded as to be virtually incomprehensible to outsiders. But that is another story.

If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.
Doug Larson

The cave with the longest surveyed passages is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, 367 miles.

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