David Bruce: Language Anecdotes

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After Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, it was sent to the Continental Congress to be debated. Members of the Congress made many suggestions concerning changes they wanted made to the wording. Benjamin Franklin could see that Mr. Jefferson did not like many of the suggested changes, although he sat quietly, so Mr. Franklin told a story about a hatter named John Thompson, who decided to open a store and sell hats. Mr. Thompson wrote down his idea for a sign he wanted to have made, but he asked his friends to look over the wording first to ensure that it was suitable. The wording said: “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money.” In addition, Mr. Thompson drew a picture of a hat. The first friend suggested that the word “Hatter” be deleted, because the sign already said “makes and sells hats.” The next friend suggested deleting “makes and,” because as long as the hats were well made, no one would care who made them. Another friend suggested deleting “for ready money,” since in the days before credit cards, people customarily paid cash. Yet another friend suggested deleting “sells hats,” since no one expected him to give away the hats. After all these suggestions were taken into account, the only things that remained to the sign were the name “John Thompson” and the picture of a hat. After hearing and laughing at the story, the delegates of the Continental Congress became satisfied with many fewer changes to the Declaration of Independence than they had proposed.

In February 1778, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben went to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and volunteered in General George Washington’s army. Baron Steuben claimed that he had been a general in the Prussian Army, and because he bore a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, General Washington welcomed him. Baron Steuben played a major role in training the Colonial Army. He taught the American soldiers how to stand at attention properly and how to drill. Because he knew little English, an interpreter gave most of his orders for him. When Baron Steuben became frustrated with the soldiers, he sometimes ordered the translator to curse the men in English for him. Nevertheless, he was well liked and well respected by the men and by General Washington. In fact, when General Washington learned that Baron Steuben had been only a captain in the Prussian army and not a general, he didn’t care. He made Baron Steuben a major general in the Colonial Army anyway.

While trading with the Native Americans, members of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition sometimes found language to be a major but not insurmountable barrier. During one trading session, Native American chief Cameahwait spoke Shoshone to Sacagawea, his sister who served as guide to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Sacagawea then spoke in Hidatsa to her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, who then spoke in French to expedition member Francis Labiche, who then spoke in English to Lewis and Clark. Despite the language barrier, the trading was successful.

The mummy of Ramses II, ancient pharaoh of Egypt, began to be destroyed by an infection, so in 1977 it was sent to Paris for treatment. Fortunately, the infection was cured, and the mummy was returned to Cairo, Egypt. Earlier, in 1881, this mummy and several other royal mummies had been discovered and then taken to Cairo. Customs officials back then had to figure out a way to classify the mummies; after all, “mummy” is not a normal classification of the items a customs official would deal with. They solved the problem by classifying the mummies as “dried fish.”

Astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was born in England, where she attended a religious school when she was a child, but she was very interested in science and decided to take the entrance exams for Cambridge University. Part of the exams required translating religious passages from Latin and Greek. Her religious training came in handy here. She was able to recognize the religious passages and rather than translate them, she simply wrote them from memory. Later, she became Harvard University’s first woman full professor and first woman head of a department.

When Samuel Morse invented the telegraph — and Morse code — he did not neglect to create an inspirational message to be the first message transmitted using his new invention. On May 24, 1844, he telegraphed these words: “What hath God wrought?” This was the first telegraph message ever sent. On the other hand, when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he did neglect to create an inspirational message. In 1876, Mr. Bell made the first telephone call ever — it was banal. He said to his partner, Thomas Watson, “Come here, Watson. I want you.”

During the Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman marched from Atlanta, Georgia, to Savannah, Georgia, destroying everything he could in an effort to break the will of the South. Union soldiers commandeered cattle and food, destroyed whatever they could not use, and set fire to buildings. Whenever they came across a railroad, they tore up the iron rails, used the wooden ties to heat the iron rails, then wrapped the hot iron rails around trees. These iron rails were known as “Sherman’s neckties.”

During the French Revolution, members of the National Assembly met together, and members of the conservative and liberal parties sat in separate places. The conservative Feuillants sat on the right, while the liberal Jacobins sat on the left. Delegates who were not committed to either party sat in the middle. Today, we say that conservatives are on the right, while liberals are on the left. In addition, we say that people who are neither conservative nor liberal are in the center.

Very early in his career, Russian bass Feodor Chaliapine got work in the chorus of the French Light Opera Company. Very few of the members of the company were French, and the others did not know French. Fortunately, the members of the Russian audience also did not know French, thus allowing the singers to sing all the foreign words they knew at random — for example, “Colorado, Niagara, Mississippi, Charpentier, and Eau-de-vie ….”

“The language of friend is not words but meanings.” — Henry David Thoreau

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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