David Bruce: Anecdotes About Language

Marvel comic-book maven Stan Lee always had a sense of humor. For the cover of the 17th issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, he wrote this warning: “If you don’t say this is one of the greatest issues you’ve ever read, we may never talk to you again!” He also started a Marvel fan club, but at first he revealed only the initials—not the name—of the fan club: MMMS. He allowed readers to try to guess what the initials stood for, but no one got the right answer: the Merry Marvel Marching Society. Mr. Lee’s letters pages in his comic books were also entertaining and informal rather than stuffy. The letters written to him started with “Hi, Stan” instead of “Dear Editor,” and Mr. Lee always responded with “Hey,” followed by the writer’s name. He also threw around a lot of phrases such as “Hang loose” and “’Nuff said.” When these phrases started to appear on the letters pages of non-Marvel comic books, Mr. Lee started using “Excelsior!”—Latin for “Higher!”

The family of Times Herald Record columnist Beth Quinn, like many families, sometimes makes up its own words and its own phrases—words and phrases that have their own known-to-family-and-friends-only meanings. For example, her family, which loves dogs, uses the word “eardo” to describe a dog that has one long ear flopped up on top of its head instead of hanging down as it should. And her family will sometimes use the phrase “Here! Have a kipling!” to say that something is really huge. This phrase originated when Beth’s grandmother asked Kathy, one of Beth’s friends, for her kifling recipe. A kifling is a small, delicate cookie that is supposed to be no bigger than your pinkie finger. However, after getting the recipe, Beth’s Grammy created a batch of huge kiflings, each of them bigger than her hand. Staggering into the living room under the weight of the tray of huge cookies, Grammy told Beth and Kathy, “Here! Have a kifling!”

As a young man, long-nosed Jimmy Durante (later a famous comedian) studied with an Italian music teacher who loved a much younger woman who knew English but not Italian. Since Mr. Durante knew both languages, he was put to work translating the teacher’s passionate letters from Italian to English, and translating the young lady’s replies from English to Italian. Somehow, the young lady found out what Mr. Durante was doing, and she fancied that she might be in love with him. Unfortunately, when she saw him, Mr. Durante says, “She took one look and dropped me out of her afflictions.” (Mr. Durante occasionally misused words, often with humorous and wise intent; the expected word would be “affections.”)

Film critic Jim Emerson met famed director Robert Altman by accident in a hotel. Mr. Emerson had recently returned from Europe, and he was telling a publicist how he “found it exhilarating and liberating to be in a strange city, and to be out in public, and not understand the conversations that are taking place all around you.” Mr. Altman was nearby, talking on a telephone, and when his telephone conversation was over, he came up to Mr. Emerson and said, “I heard what you were saying about being in Europe, and that’s exactly the way I’ve felt! I lived in Paris for years and never learned French. You realize there’s just so much extraneous bullsh*t you don’t have to listen to if you don’t know the language!”

In his essay “A Ballet Master’s Belief,” which appeared in Portrait of Mr. B, Lincoln Kirstein wrote that George Balanchine could be blunt when bluntness was needed. For example, an overbearing stage mother asked him what he was going to do for her dancer son. Mr. Balanchine replied, “Nothing. Perhaps, only perhaps, he can do some little thing for himself.” On another occasion, a young male dancer over-reacted to some temporary failure in his dance technique during a morning class, and he savagely bit his lip. Mr. Balanchine told the 17-year-old boy, “It is you who chose to be a dancer. I didn’t choose for you.”

Language changes over time and so can cause misunderstandings. Carolyn Alessio once taught Stephen Dunn’s poem “Biography in the First Person” to a class of inner-city children who misunderstood Mr. Dunn’s line “My father a crack salesman.” The children were sad because they thought that Mr. Dunn’s father was a drug dealer, and even when Ms. Alessio explained that when Mr. Dunn wrote the poem, the word “crack” meant “crackerjack” or excellent, they declined to believe her because they thought that she was cleaning up the poem for them.

Children’s misunderstanding of the meanings of words can be funny. Marty, editor of Bartcop Entertainment on the WWW, remembers that when she and Johnny, her brother, were little, their father had varicose veins that needed to removed surgically. Because the varicose veins were about the size of small walnuts, Marty and her brother called them “nuts.” Johnny was in kindergarten, and Miss Pat, his teacher, asked him, “Why is your daddy in the hospital?” Johnny replied, “He’s having his nuts cut off.”

When Mem Fox, the Australian young people’s author of Possum Magic, was less than one year old, her parents moved to Southern Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) in Africa. This meant that she became fluent not only in English, but also in Ndebele, the local African language. Her knowledge of Ndebele did have what she considered an advantage—she was able to be cheeky to her mother in a language that her mother didn’t understand. Her mother would have to ask a native to translate what her daughter had said: “What did she say, the little monkey?”

George Balanchine knew what he wanted, and he knew how to describe (and often to demonstrate) what he wanted. While choreographing Scotch Symphony, he told his dancers that he wanted them to form a rhombus—a word that everybody paid attention to. Allegra Kent writes in Once a Dancer …, “Everyone had perked up at the unusual word. What had interested me was his precision and exactness. Any old parallelogram would not do. He wanted an equilateral parallelogram.”

© 2016, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

David Bruce has written lots of collections of anecdotes, plus other books. Take a look at the list here:


Most of the anecdotes are funny; some are thought provoking.

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