When H. Algeranoff joined Anna Pavlova’s dance troupe in 1921, he listened carefully to the other members of her troupe so that he could pick up a little of the Russian language. However, most of the other members of the troupe were from Poland, and so the words of “Russian” he picked up were actually Polish. He did eventually learn some Russian as well as some Polish, but he suffered a few mishaps along the way. Once, a Polish dancer named Nelle told him to say a few words to another Polish dancer who was going to bed. The words were a harmless rhyme and meant, “Good night, and fleas in your bed.” However, as Nelle had planned, Mr. Algeranoff mispronounced a word, making the saying shocking. The Polish dancer blushed bright red, and Nelle danced with delight.
When Hispanic actor Antonio Banderas first came to the United States to make movies, he did not speak English, although he was good at making English speakers think that he spoke English. When he met Arne Glimcher, who was to direct him in The Mambo Kings, he kept slapping him on the back, grabbing his arm and laughing, and saying a few English words such as “oh, yeah,” “of course,” and “right, right.” Eventually, Mr. Glimcher said to him, “You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?” Mr. Banderas responded by smiling and laughing. That was when Mr. Glimcher knew that he was in the presence of the actor he wanted to star in his movie. (Mr. Banderas did learn English for real and very quickly — he studied it eight hours a day so he could speak English in The Mambo Kings.)
Latin singer Mark Anthony revolutionized salsa music with his album Todo a Su Tiempo (Everything in Its Time), which merged Latin dance rhythms with 1990s pop, yet early in his music career he had trouble giving interviews to members of the Spanish-speaking media. Having been raised in New York City, Mr. Anthony was not fluent in Spanish, and therefore he had to take Spanish lessons in order to be prepared to give interviews in that language after his albums became huge sellers in Latin American countries.
After lesbian playwright Holly Hughes wrote Clit Notes, she discovered that major media avoided the word “clit.” For example, the New York Times declined to print the title of the play, saying instead that it contained “a slang term for the the word ‘clitoris.’” When Ms. Hughes was interviewed on a National Public Radio station, she was warned not to call someone else a clitoris, but instead to use the word only about herself.
Opera singer Geraldine Farrar was imperfect in French early in her career. During her first trip to France, she and her mother went to a small family hotel in Boulogne, where Geraldine — speaking stammering French — told the landlady what they needed and what they were willing to pay. The landlady — speaking perfect English — replied, “If you will only tell me in English, I can understand you better.”
Sir Henry Wood was a wonderful conductor, but his English was not polished, and he had a habit of ending many of his sentences with the phrase “regardless of,” as in, “What are you cellos doing, regardless of?” Once, he received some advice about how to improve his English, and at a rehearsal, he asked, “What are you violins doing?” The entire orchestra chimed in and shouted, “Regardless of.”
Umpire Ken Burkhart once called Roberto Clemente out, and Mr. Clemente called him a “blind son-of-a-beech,” so Mr. Burkhart threw him out of the game. Pittsburgh Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh argued with Mr. Burkhart, saying that Mr. Clemente couldn’t have said what Mr. Burkhart thought he had said because Mr. Clemente didn’t speak any English. Mr. Burkhart replied, “You guys taught him some English.”
In the first half of the 20th century, John Kieran, a New York Times sports columnist, was invited to a forum at an Ivy League university, where some of the students criticized Mr. Kieran’s school, Fordham, because it provided its graduates with what they considered a less-than-ideal classical education. Mr. Kieran responded by rising and speaking in defense of Fordham — in Latin.
John K. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon by only 50,000 votes. Shortly after the election, President Kennedy read an article which praised one of his aides as being “coruscatingly” brilliant. Mr. Kennedy remarked, “Those guys should never forget, 50,000 votes the other way and we’d all be coruscatingly stupid.”
Children’s book illustrator Victoria Chess grew up speaking languages other than English. She didn’t understand English until she was three years old, and she didn’t let anyone know she could understand English until she was four. Why not? People say interesting things in English if they think you don’t know that language.
After playing King Lear, Sir Henry Irving made his bows and spoke a few words to the audience. A member of the audience shouted, “Why didn’t you speak like that before?” Mystified, Sir Henry turned to actress Ellen Terry, who told him that all during the play she had not been able to understand anything he had said.
The music of Latino Ricky Martin is popular across the world. While on a Far East tour, he was amazed to perform in a Chinese town and hear his Chinese fans singing, “Un, dos, tres, un pasisto pa’lante, Maria.” Mr. Martin says, “I’ve gotten the Chinese to speak Spanish. Who else can say that?”
When soon-to-be-artist Vincent van Gogh started an evangelical course, he labored under the handicap of not wanting to learn Hebrew or Greek. During one lesson, when he was asked if a word was in the nominative or the dative case, he answered, “Sir, I really don’t care.”
Gloria Steinem once listened to a group of approximately 20 girls of ages ranging from nine to sixteen discuss what to call the entire package of female genitalia: labia, vagina, clitoris. After much spirited discussion, they decided that they liked best this term: power bundle.
“Life is too short to learn German.” — Richard Porson.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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