David Bruce: Language Anecdotes

British actress Emily Mortimer studied Russian while attending Oxford University, and she has spent much time in Russia. Her knowledge of Russian comes in handy when she is riding in a taxi driven by a Ukrainian. She says that she has “always managed to sort of charm Ukrainian taxi drivers in New York by suddenly swearing in Russia in the back of the cab.” Unfortunately, while making part of the movie Transsiberian in Lithuania, no one seemed impressed by her knowledge of Russian. Soon she discovered why: “Then someone pointed out about a week into it that in Lithuania they’d been brutally oppressed and persecuted by the Soviet Union for 30 years, and the least cool thing to do in Lithuania is to speak Russian.” By the way, her father is Sir John Mortimer QC, about whom she says, “He was a criminal defense lawyer for much of his life, and he defended murderers a lot. And he said that murderers were by far the nicest criminals he’s ever had to defend. And they’d inevitably gotten rid of the one person on earth that was really bugging them. So he’s always kept me very open-minded about murderers.”

Journalist and author Andrew Mueller takes spelling, punctuation, and grammar seriously. He once discovered that a possible romantic companion did not know—or care—about the difference between your and you’re. She ceased to be a possible romantic companion for him. He once shouted an obscenity at people whose stall had a sign for toiletrie’s. And he routinely went four blocks out of his way to purchase groceries because the store across the street had a sign for tomatoe’s. All of us can applaud Mr. Mueller’s campaign for correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. (Oh, wait. He’s a Brit—his book I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong is published in Britain—who wants Americans to use the spelling neighbours. In the opinion of this American writer, that makes him a radical who has gone too far.)

Singer-songwriters need many talents, including the ability to give good interviews. Of course, as songwriters and singers, they tend to have a facility in creating and presenting language. For example, Charlotte Sometimes made a splash with her 2008 debut album, the pop-with-attitude Waves and the Both of Us. And no wonder—this is a sample lyric: “Do you think of her / Hands on my waist / And do you think of me when she screams your name?” David Medsker of Bullz-eye.com asked her in an interview, “What is the hardest thing about being a woman rocker that people outside the biz would never understand?” Ms. Sometimes replied, “Having PMS. I think I should get those days off!”

Colin Hay, front man for the Australian group Men at Work (and currently a solo artist), used to be multilingual: He can speak English with a Scottish accent. And he used to be able to speak English with an Australian accent. He was born and raised in Scotland, but when he was a teenager, his family moved to Australia. Mr. Hays says, “I used to have two accents. There’s the Scottish accent I’ve always had. But I developed an Australian accent just to assimilate. I would talk Australian out on the street, and at home with my parents, I would speak Scottish.”

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who is Danish, starred as an immortal New York police officer in Fox’s TV series New Amsterdam. He is multilingual and has acted using many languages, but of course he does not have equal facility in all of the languages he speaks. For example, his French can be lacking. Mr. Coster-Waldau remembers one particular movie: “The script was in French, and I learned all my lines. I was working with this actress who was great, but she wanted to improvise. All I could do is look at her with great depth in my eyes.”

At age 14, Canadian ballet dancer Olympia Dowd was given the opportunity to study and perform—in an international tour to Asia and Europe!—with the Moscow City Ballet. Also given the invitation was her fellow Canadian ballet dancer, 17-year-old Rebecca Blaney. Of course, precautions were taken. The men in the Moscow City Ballet were given a strict warning—if you flirt with the Canadian girls, you will be fired. Also, of course, the girls learned a few things they perhaps should not have learned—such as Russian swear words.

Actor Will Smith started out as a well-respected Philadelphia rapper. He wrote his own lyrics, and sometimes he used profanity in those lyrics. However, one day his grandmother read a page of lyrics he had written, and across the top of the page she wrote, “Dear Willard, intelligent people do not use these words to express themselves.” After that experience, he wrote lyrics without swear words.

When the triangular Fuller Building, aka the Flatiron Building, was built in New York in 1902, it created an occasional breeze on Twenty-Third Street that was enough to raise ladies’ skirts and reveal an ankle or two—something of interest to many men. Occasionally, police officers would have to tell gawking men, “Twenty-three skidoo,” a phrase that means, “Get away from Twenty-third Street.”

When Fay Kanin started writing for the movies, she told her boss, Sam Marx, the story editor at MGM, “Mr. Marx, I know you own Gone with the Wind. I’ve read it, and I would be a wonderful writer for it.” He smiled at her brashness and said, “I think they have in mind a more expensive writer for it.” Ms. Kanin always appreciated that he used the word “expensive” instead of the word “talented.”

The term “Jim Crow” had its origin when Thomas “Daddy” Rice, a white man who wore blackface and played an African-American in minstrel shows, saw a black boy in ragged clothing singing “Jump, Jim Crow.” Mr. Rice copied the boy’s movements and used them in minstrel shows, and after a while “Jim Crow” began to be used to denote legal segregation between whites and blacks.

When comedian Sid Caesar and his wife dined out, Mr. Caesar would sometimes baffle waiters by using a mixture of French and Italian doubletalk when ordering from the menu.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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