I am fascinated by the English language, the people who use it, and how they use (and misuse) it. We are indeed separated by a common tongue. These are just little stories about my personal adventures with the English language that have amused me over the years:
1. When I went into ROTC at UMass in 1955, we went supervised by U.S. Army Master Sergeants, working out their retirement years after World War II and Korea. They were sharp, tough, no nonsense guys. Most of them were “street kids.” They were short on formal education, but long on experience and hard knocks. They were decorated combat veterans who had seen it all, and were trying to pass some of it on to young would-be officers, like myself.
One of my favorites was M/Sgt. Flynn, a Brooklyn boy who spoke his own language and expected you to understand and obey it – fast. Once, during a weekend morning in the field, he told us to prepare for “brefdast,” and walked away. We had no idea what that was. A maneuver of some sort? A test? What was it? It became clear a little later when he stopped back to tell us he had been at the mess tent for coffee and we’re “…having bacom and aigs for brefdast.”
Another time, he warned us that unless we shaped up fast we had no hope of becoming “ossifers.” We exchanged looks once again. What’s an “ossifer?” Once again he cleared it up a few minutes later when he said: “I’ll only recommend the best to wear a gold bar, and be commissioned an ossifer in the U.S. Army.”
Another favorite was “sangwidge.” You can probably guess that one by now. For mid-day chow, we have might coffee and a sangwidge.
On the rare occasions when I see one of my Army friends again, one of us will always say something like: “In today’s Army, do the ossifers still have a sangwidge for brefdast?”
2. In the Sixties, I was working in an international marketing group. We had responsibility for marketing our products in the Asia-Pacific area. My friend Nick handled Japan, and his contact over there told him he was coming to the U.S. for a corporate visit. Nick was thrilled. He liked the guy, but had never met him, and wanted him to have a good time on his first trip to America. Nick was quite a cook and he invited the man to dinner at his apartment. He asked, “Is there anything special you’d like to try?” The Japanese thought for a moment and said, “Yes, thank you, I’ve always wanted to try pickerel.” Nick said fine, he’d be ready, and hung up. He said to me, “That’s a funny one, but if that’s what he wants – fine.”
The day before his visitor arrived, Nick drove 50 miles into the Boston fish market, and after a bit of searching, found his pickerel. He brought it home, cleaned it, got out the cook book for ideas, and decided to saute it in melted butter and serve with roasted veggies. It was a lot of work, but he was glad to do it for a friend.
Came the big night and his Japanese guest arrived. They had drinks, talked, laughed and had a good time. Finally, dinner was ready. They sat at the table and Nick took the cover off his masterpiece. The Japanese looked at it, smiled, and said, “Very nice. What is it?”
Nick said, “It’s pickerel You wanted to try pickerel, didn’t you?”
The Japanese said, “Oh yes. This is a kosher dill pickerel?”
3. Tony was a senior draftsman who had been brought to this country from Italy as a child, with no English language skills, and thrust immediately into school to either sink or swim. That wasn’t uncommon in those days. Tony worked hard. He soon mastered English, in his own way, and became fascinated with the language. We were in a car pool to Worcester and back every day, and Tony would always throw out a new word or two that he had just heard or read.
To pass the travel time, the 4 of us in the carpool played “Password.” It was a TV game where you were given a word you had to “pass” to your partner. You could use synonyms, images, but no gestures or any forms of the word itself. Tony and I were partners. The losers bought lunch, so the game sometimes got very serious indeed.
One day we were in a tight game and it came down to me passing Tony a word. The word was “stick.” I had it down cold. I said, “Tony: ‘adhere.'” Tony went blank. The other team got it right next turn. We lost and had to buy lunch.
Later, Tony came to me and apologized. “I never heard that word ‘adhere’ before. What does it mean?”
And I said, “That’s okay, Tony. ‘Adhere’ means ‘stick.'” It’s a synonym for ‘stick.’ It means the same thing.
Tony said, “I’ll never forget that.”
A few days later, we picked up Tony at 7am as usual, and he seemed upset. “What’s wrong, Tony?” we asked.
He said, “Oh, my little girl was playing with a friend last night and she got hit in the eye with an adhere.”
We looked at each other. “Tony,” I said, “she got hit with an ‘adhere?'”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “You know, a ‘stick.'”
3. Years ago, my daughter Mary ran a day care in her home where working mothers could leave their children while they were at the job. I used to stop by on occasion, say hello, see my grandchildren, and amuse the kids a little bit with my magic tricks while Mary made coffee.
One little girl, Olivia, was about 3 or 4 and fascinated by my magic. One day, I was leaning against the sink, having coffee and talking to Mary, when Olivia came up to me with her hands raised and her fingers stretched apart. She said, “Watch my hands.”
I thought she was showing me a magic trick, so I paid exaggerated attention to her hands, looking from one to the other with a big smile on my face.
She looked at me as though I wasn’t too bright, and said again: “Watch my hands.”
I said, “I am. I am watching your hands.”
She sighed and said, “Der’re tickey! Watch my hands.”
4. Lt. Colonel Cooney was our battalion commander at Ft. Knox during my tour there in the late 1950’s. Another veteran of World War II and Korea, he was cool, competent, and a nice guy to work for – as long as you didn’t lose your perspective.
One day, he called me in and told me how he wanted a certain field maneuver to be conducted. His instructions were clear, but complicated, and it meant a lot of extra work for me and the staff.
I said, “Yes sir, I’ll do that for you.”
He smiled, put his arm around my shoulder, and said: “Thank you, Lieutenant, but try not to think of it as a personal favor. Think of it as a direct order.”
I got the message.
5. Innocence Abroad: I first started dealing with the Brits in 1964 when I worked on staff for a multi-national computer manufacturer. We had a plant in England and one day, the boss gave me a memo and said, “Send this to Hemel Hempstead in England.” I did just that and put it in the intercompany mail. I added a note addressed to Hemel Hempstead that began, “Dear Mr. Hempstead…” and explained the situation.
I thought no more of it until a few weeks later when I got back a letter, in the inter-company mail, from Hemel Hempstead. He thanked me for my courtesy, said he looked forward to working with me, and signed it “Cheers, -Hemel.” We were to be on a first name basis.
I wrote Hemel often after that when I sent him plant policies and such. I started including little inside updates on what was happening over here. I always got back a nice note thanking me for my assistance and my amusing little updates on life in the home office. Hemel often told a few stories about life in Merry Old England. The notes were always signed: “Cheers, -Hemel.”
One day, my boss told me that the Brits were coming over for an annual planning meeting and they had asked specifically that I be invited to their executive dinner. That was quite a coup for a newbie like me, and my boss was impressed. “Who do you know over there?” he asked.
I said, “I know Hemel Hempstead. We correspond regularly.”
My boss said: “‘Hemel Hempstead?’ That is a place. Hemel Hempstead is a town.just east of London. You know, like ‘Boston, Massachusetts.’ My goodness! The Brits and their dry humor, they’ve been putting you on. Now you must attend this dinner.”
I did attend, and it was great fun. Each Brit came up to me, shook my hand, and said, “So good to meet you, Ed. I’m Hemel.”
It turned out my notes made the bulletin boards all over the plant, and everyone eagerly looked forward to my next update to my good friend, Hemel. They loved it.
They brought me some good whiskey from Duty Free along with a few booklets on Hemel Hempstead, andf an English History book. They said they’d ask my boss to send me over there on some pretext, because everyone in the Hemel Hempstead plant wanted to meet me. It was a morale issue.
Yes, it was a bit embarrassing, but their sense of humor, good fun, and friendliness made it all worthwhile. I continued corresponding with them, but this time I had an actual person’s name.