David Bruce: Language Anecdotes



Writer Ben Hecht hated pomposity. When he was writing for his own newspaper, the Chicago Literary Times, the Moscow Art Players came to Chicago and performed, entirely in Russian, The Brothers Karamazov. Approximately 3,800 people in the audience listened to Russian actors speak Russian for four hours, then they gave the actors a tremendous ovation. Now, of the 3,800 people in the audience, Mr. Hecht figured that no more than 20 people could understand enough Russian to follow the play, and so the tremendous ovation they gave the play annoyed him. Because the Chicago Literary Times was his own newspaper, Mr. Hecht could do with it what he wanted, so he decided to have the review of the play translated into Russian and to print it that way. However, after the review was all set in Russian type, the printer dropped the type and it scattered all over the floor. Unfortunately, no one there knew how to read Russian and since the paper had to go to press right away, they picked up the type and put it back anyway they could, knowing that the review no longer made sense. As it turned out, the mistake didn’t matter. After the paper was published, approximately 60 letters arrived, all praising the review written in Russian and saying that it was the best thing that the Chicago Literary Times had ever published.

The Teatro la Fenice in Venice, Italy, is the only opera house in the world that has an entrance for gondolas. (The theater is built oddly because the site it is on is shaped irregularly, partly due to the presence of canals.) It was built in 1836 to replace another theater that had burned down. Gianantonio Selva, who designed the building, had the word “Societas” written on the building’s facade. Witty Venetians made an acrostic of the word: “Sine Ordine Cum Irregularitate Erexit Theatrum Antonius Selva.” Translated, the phrase means: “Without Order, With Irregularity, This Theater was Built by Antonio Selva.”

When speaking with someone from another country, be sure to pronounce all words clearly. After a charity performance of Broadway at the Albert Hall in London, the stars of the play met the host of the charity event. First he met Tallulah Bankhead, whose voice was renowned for its huskiness, then he met Olive Blakeney, whose voice was as husky as Tallulah’s. Amused, the host turned to Ms. Blakeney’s husband and asked, “Are all American women hoarse?” Ms. Blakeney’s husband punched the host on the jaw, and the host woke up in a hospital.

Sometimes it hurts not to know local slang. When H. Allen Smith was working as a young reporter in Huntington, Indiana, he interviewed a hotel owner. The hotel owner’s wife was blonde, and because Mr. Smith had forgotten to get her name, he referred to her in his article as “Blondie.” After the article was published, he discovered that “Blondie” in that particular town meant the proprietor of a brothel. Fortunately, the hotel owner accepted Mr. Smith’s sincere apology and did not stomp him to death.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini once swore in Italian at the Metropolitan orchestra, saying that it played like a pig. After the rehearsal, the remark was translated and disseminated, and members of the orchestra demanded an apology; otherwise, they would not play for him. Toscanini refused on the grounds that his remark was true. However, he did say “Good morning” at the next rehearsal, and the members of the orchestra decided to play once more for him.

Andrew Tobias knows a couple of gay men who are raising a daughter who is trilingual. The gay men speak English and French around the house, and the babysitter speaks nothing but Spanish. Not allowing their daughter to watch TV, the gay men bought her instead a bunch of Disney videotapes — all in Spanish. For a long time, their daughter thought the TV set spoke only Spanish.

After Bob Denver graduated from college, the draft board called him because his deferment was over. At a meeting, Mr. Denver told the draft board that he was his mother’s sole support, but they didn’t believe him. This made Mr. Denver angry, so he called the head of the draft board a pragmatist. The head of the draft board didn’t know what the word meant, so he thought he had been called a dirty name.

Samuel Augustus Maverick was a businessman in San Antonio in the 1850s. Although he owned a ranch, he paid little attention to the raising of cattle, and his cattle were seldom branded. As a result, cowboys would say “That’s one of Maverick’s” whenever they saw a stray without a brand. Soon, the cowboys began to call any unbranded cattle “mavericks.”

Humorist Ellen Orleans writes about code words that lesbians use to identify other lesbians. For example, there’s “She goes to the same church we do” and “She’s family.” Some lesbians even use the code words “She’s a member of the committee” and “She’s advanced.” Others use “gay-dar” and say “Beep, beep” when they pass a lesbian.

Oscar Levant studied piano for several years under Sigismund Stojowski. Once Mr. Stojowski asked him what he was going to play for a certain program. Mr. Levant replied, I think I’ll play Debussy’s Reflets dans L’Eau or Poissons d’Or.” Mr. Stojowski then said, “Your piano playing is not improving, but your French is.”

Alicia Markova, born Alicia Marks, was an English ballerina who was given her name by Russian ballet producer Sergei Diaghilev because at that time, ballet was not prominent in England. The name — and her reluctance to make speeches — fooled some journalists, who reported that Ms. Markova could not speak English!

Ballet shoes are handmade, and the people who make them are called makers. Once, before going to London to dance with the New York City Ballet, Patricia McBride remarked, “I hope so much to meet my maker while I’m there.”

Ring Lardner once read through a newspaper column about the 10 most beautiful words in the English language — words such as “moonlight,” “melody,” and “tranquil.” Setting the newspaper down, he mused, “What’s wrong with ‘gangrene’?”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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