David Bruce: Language Anecdotes

Sometimes Arnold Schwarzenegger says exactly the wrong thing; sometimes he says exactly the right thing. When he met Dino De Laurentiis, who produced the Schwarzenegger movie Conan the Barbarian, Mr. Schwarzenegger was shocked that Mr. De Laurentiis was such a small man, so he asked, “Why does such a little man like you need such a huge desk?” His agent later told him, “That was the worst thing I ever heard anybody say when he’s trying to get a job.” One time when Mr. Schwarzenegger said exactly the right thing was when he was hit with an egg while he was campaigning for governor of California. He said, “That guy owes me bacon.”

Movie actor Ewan McGregor’s wife is a French woman named Eve (pronounced Ev) Mavrakis. One result of this is that their daughter’s first words were in French, not English. Therefore, Mr. McGregor decided to learn more French; otherwise, when his daughter grew up and argued with him, he might not understand some of the words she used. By the way, when Mr. McGregor got married in France, one of the few French words he knew was “oui,” which he spoke when prompted. Also by the way, Mr. McGregor, who played a younger Obi-Wan Kanobi in the prequel Star Warsmovies, slept on Star Wars sheets when he was a kid.

Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman once asked his 85-year-old grandmother whether her old age had brought her happiness in any way. She replied that her old age had made it easier to get rid of telemarketers. For example, if a telemarketer started telling her about “broadband internet,” she simply told the telemarketer, “I’m in my 80’s!” The telemarketer would assume that she was too old to understand or care about the definition of broadband internet and so the telemarketer would hang up the telephone. (Actually, she understands perfectly well what broadband internet is.)

Elaine L. Chow, who has been Director of the Peace Corps, Secretary of Labor, and President and CEO of the United Way, came to the United States to be with her father, who had emigrated from Taiwan three years previously. She did not know a word of English, but in the third grade she wrote down everything that the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. Her father, who worked at three jobs, would come home from work, look at her notes, and then explain the lessons to her. In that way, she learned English.

The family of comedian Mike Myers, star of the Wayne’s World and Austin Powers movies, came from Liverpool, England, although he was born and raised in Canada. Because the Beatles, who came from Liverpool, sounded so much like his parents, when Mike was very young, he thought that he was related to the Beatles. By the way, after Mike married Robin Ruzan, they had three dogs, but Mike declined to reveal the dogs’ names to the media—out of fear that the dogs would be dognapped.

John Dexter used to produce operas in Paris, although he spoke English and a young woman would translate his comments so that other people could understand them. Occasionally, Mr. Dexter would become really angry and curse people in English, and the young woman would diplomatically translate his comments. However, Mr. Dexter knew enough French to be aware of what the young woman was doing, so he would order her, “Tell them what I really said.”

Philadelphia Phillie Dick Sisler stuttered, and he took a lot of good-natured ribbing from opposing players. Since he had been a Navy chief petty officer, players often asked him, “Whatta ya say, “Ch-ch-ch-ch-Chief?” Mr. Sisler always replied, “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fine, thanks.” One day, a lost stranger asked for directions, saying, “Hey, bu-bu-bu-bu-buddy, where’s fo-fo-fo-fo-forty-second street?” Mr. Sisler says, “I was af-af-af-af-afraid to answer.”

Italian is rich in invective, and conductor Arturo Toscanini made rich use of it when he wanted to criticize a musician or a singer. Once, he was heaping Italian invective upon a musician when he realized that the musician did not understand Italian and so did not understand what he was saying. Because his knowledge of English was limited, Mr. Toscanini was forced to tell the musician, “You bad, bad man.”

The TV crime drama series Dragnet is known for the phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Actually, those words were not said all that often in the early days of the series. However, satirist Stan Freberg recorded a parody of the show (“St. George and the Dragonet”), in which he used the phrase. Dragnet creator, writer, and star Jack Webb liked the parody so much that he began to write that phrase more often into the script.

Noble Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr was born in Copenhagen and of course grew up speaking Danish. When he decided to learn English, he got a copy of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and read it, looking up each word he did not already know in a red dictionary even when he could guess its meaning from its context. He used his red dictionary for the rest of his life.

The use of the word “cell” to describe certain structures in nature that can be seen only with a microscope was invented by the 17th-century scientist Robert Hooke. He used a microscope to look at a thin slice of cork, and he observed that the cork was divided into many, many small boxes that reminded him of the cells that monks live in.

The Great Society, a rock ’n’ roll band out of San Francisco, wrote a song about comedian Lenny Bruce called “Father Bruce.” It included these lines: “The word to kill ain’t dirty, but you use a word for lovin’, and you end up doin’ time.”

Comedian Phyllis Diller was a frequent visitor to the Playboy Mansion in Chicago, The door to the Playboy Mansion bears a brass plate with this Latin inscription: “Si Non Oscillas, Non Tintinnare.” (“If You Don’t Swing, Don’t Ring.”)

Jeff Stone, an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox, once played for a while in Latin America, and when he returned to the United States, he left his TV behind. Why? He explained, “All the programs were in Spanish.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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