David Bruce: Language Anecdotes

Bakst_daighilev

Léon Bakst: Portrait of Serge Diaghilev and His Nanny

When Pierre Monteux was conducting for Serge Diaghilev, a champion of new choreography and new music, he sometimes ran into problems with orchestras which resented playing some of the new music. For example, at the Vienna Opera House, the Philharmonic Orchestra rebelled at playing Igor Stravinsky’s music for Petrushka, and so at rehearsals despite Mr. Monteux’s best efforts, the violins, celli, basses, and violas played pianissimo, while the woodwinds and brasses played fortissimo. Mr. Diaghilev heard the cacophony, and he yelled at Mr. Monteux, “It’s not Petrushka — it’s a funeral march!” The members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, eager for a fight, jumped to their feet and demanded an apology. Mr. Diaghilev agreed to give them an apology, but he knew that they could not understand French when it was spoken quickly, so he proceeded to insult them in the worst and most derogatory terms possible, but he was such a good actor that the members thought he was making an apology. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra accepted the “apology,” the rehearsal went on, but unfortunately, Mr. Monteux says, “The results were dull uninspired performances because … the great Vienna Philharmonic simply could not play Petrushka.”

African-American comedian Dick Gregory’s first memoir was titled Nigger, and it was written with the help of a man named Robert Lipsyte. For a long time, Mr. Lipsyte interviewed Mr. Gregory, then wrote sections of the book, and for a long time Mr. Gregory did not read any of what Mr. Lipsyte wrote. Finally, Mr. Lipsyte got Mr. Gregory to read a few chapters, then he waited, afraid that Mr. Gregory would reject the writing and the autobiography would never be published. Finally, Mr. Gregory looked up from the manuscript and said, “No, I can’t let this go through.” Mr. Lipsyte gasped, “What?” Mr. Gregory replied, “You’ve hyphenated motherf**ker — it’s one word.” When the book was published, motherf**ker was one word.

Jean Little, a young people’s author, learned the power of words early in her life. She had been born with poor vision, and the other schoolchildren teased her by waiting until no teachers were within hearing distance, then shouting at her, “Cross-eyed! Cross-eyed!” One day she asked her mother, a physician, for the medical terms used to describe her eye condition, and the next time a boy started calling her cross-eyed, she turned and told him, loudly and clearly, “I am not cross-eyed. I have corneal opacities and eccentric pupils.” The boy’s mouth dropped open, she turned her back on him, and she walked away.

World traveller Diana Silbergeld has taught English in Thailand. On her first day of teaching, in a village far from anywhere, she managed to teach her students the English words for such objects as desks and other things that can be found in a classroom. In addition, she taught the students a few simple sentences in English. At the end of the lesson, the students presented her with some flowers and said one of the sentences she had taught them: “We are sad.”

Hank Aaron could defuse arguments with humor. During one of his at-bats, a pitch was ruled a ball by the umpire, and Cincinnati Reds catcher Smokey Burgess strenuously disagreed. It looked like a major situation was developing between the catcher and the umpire, but Mr. Aaron told Mr. Burgess, “Kindly do not agitate the arbiter. He can’t be as pluperfect as you.” Both the catcher and the umpire laughed, and the game resumed.

TV’s Mister Rogers was Fred Rogers, who spoke in real life in the same slow way that he talked on the TV series. Once, Mister Rogers appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Mr. Carson was so surprised that Mister Rogers spoke that way in real life that he found it difficult to keep from laughing. Mister Rogers told him, “You want to laugh, don’t you? It’s OK.” And Johnny laughed.

Kim Zmeskal was among the first group of little girl gymnasts to train at Bela Karolyi’s gym in Houston, Texas. When she became skilled enough to begin training with Mr. Karolyi himself, she found it difficult to understand his heavy Romanian accent. In fact, she says that when he spoke to her, she would be thinking to herself, “I have no idea what you’re saying to me,” but she would smile anyway.

As an elite figure skater, Sarah Hughes had the opportunity to compete in other countries while taking Spanish in high school. When she learned that she would compete in Mexico, she was excited about practicing her Spanish on the Mexicans. It didn’t work out the way she expected, though, because the Mexicans were even more excited about practicing their English on Sarah.

When John Adams was in London and his wife, Abigail, was back home in the United States, she wrote him, worried about the cold weather, and advised him to keep warm. He wrote back, saying that if it were cold at night, he would take a virgin to bed to keep him warm. (Mr. Adams then explained that in the British slang of the time, a “virgin” was a hot-water bottle.)

It’s possible for a baseball catcher to get in trouble for talking too much behind the plate. Angel Rodriguez of the Alexandria team in the Carolina League used to tell Latin American batters — in Spanish — which pitch was coming up, thus allowing them to get hits they hadn’t earned. For his misdeeds, Mr. Rodriguez was kicked out of baseball for four years.

Theatrical maven George Abbott both wrote and directed plays. As such, he was very particular about language. When he was in his late 90s, he fell while on a golf course. His wife pleaded, “George! George! Get up, please. Don’t just lay there!” Mr. Abbott looked up at his wife and corrected her: “Lie there.”

Yoshiko Uchida, author of Journey to Topaz, was born and raised in California. Once, she and her family visited the village of Cornwall, Connecticut. Most people there had never seen any Japanese Americans, and one woman complimented Yoshiko on her English.

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