Rudimentary languages get embellished by the induction of words, phrases and idioms that help to communicate effectively and trigger various emotions in the human mind. These are the shiny trims that hang on the bare language tree. English language has evolved with this kind of ornamentation over centuries of usage. Some of these trims are good enough to be retained in memory, to be filed under the category of quotable quotes. To express oneself well as a speaker or writer is as much an art form as singing or painting and requires flair for the language, depth of understanding of the literature, and the skill set to keep the reader’s attention span focused on the topic of discussion.
I give here a few examples of some unforgettable quotes.
“This is the moment of our tryst with destiny unfurling the Indian national flag”—Jawaharlal Nehru;
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country”— John F. Kennedy;
“I have a dream”—Reverend Martin Luther King; “If there is a God, I will thank Him”—Nickita Kruschev;
“I cannot promise you victory but I do guarantee sweat, blood, toil and tears”—Winston Churchill.
Humor can be innocent and spontaneous or calculated and satirical. Political satire is one of the best established forms of humor and British politicians are adept at this category. A short, pithy sentence to drive home an obvious truth or doctrine such as “Among the things most often opened by mistake is the mouth.” Most of us can recall a time or two when we made that mistake and paid for it heavily. The humor was at our expense, then. Here is a witticism that falls under this category: “God made very few perfect heads; the rest He covered with hair.”
Satire, especially political satire, is usually meant to hurt an opponent. The current election season in the United States is a gold mine for comedians and satirists. I opt to stay politically neutral in spite of the irresistible urge to laugh out loud sometimes.
Former Prime minister of England, William Gladstone once remarked about the leader of the opposition, Benjamin Disraeli. “If the Hon. Leader of the Opposition were to drown in the Thames, it would be a catastrophe, but if some one attempted to rescue him, that would be a disaster.”
Senator Barry Goldwater is reported to have commented about Nixon during the Watergate proceedings, “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”
About a feuding married couple: “The man in love with a dimple on her cheek made the mistake of marrying the whole girl.”
“It is a far cry from selling cabbages to lecturing on agriculture.”
“Inadvertent creation of a new product that continues to sell for centuries or subtle marketing tools for products can also be achieved through word play or games.”
The gluttonous King HenryVIII, after polishing off a large beef steak, is reported to have bestowed the title of knighthood on that cut of meat. Since then, SirLoin is the choice cut of beef.
When Lipton tea was introduced in India in the 1930s the first advertisement declared, “Tea is like a woman; both show their strength when in hot water.”
Muddle is simply a confusion of words. A famous example is President Clinton’s statement during the impeachment hearings. He attempted a disingenuous ploy to establish doubt with this statement, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
The famous British economist Lord Keynes wrote about his prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, “Mr. Baldwin has invented the formidable argument that he should not do anything because he would not be able to do anything else.”
Most of us are probably unaware that we (hundred percent of us) address fifty percent of the population (the male gender) from infants to adults by the word “guy.” This is actually the first name of a notorious British terrorist by the name of Guy Fawkes whose only claim to fame is that he plotted to blow up the House of Commons in an event called the Gun Powder Plot (1605). He was caught in time and executed. But his name remained in Britain’s folklore for a long time before crossing the Atlantic to the United States. Even now, a holiday is observed in England to alert the public to such violence. “Remember, remember, the fifth of November.” is part of the folk song that is sung on that day. Guy Fawkes lived and died long before America was born. Yet, our dear little baby boy in the U.S. is also a “guy.” Can’t we all be a little more appreciative of our boys and men? Chaps, blokes, fellows are acceptable alternates.
You Was and I Are—Eliza Still Lives
The flower girl Eliza Doolittle in Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion” communicates with her customers thus: “You was standing in my floer shop when I are selling button rose to the men for the girls.” It is not surprising that this format of conversation persists even now in certain areas in England such as East London and Birmingham. The cockney girl era is also reported to be here in some areas of Kentucky!
English is and will most likely continue to be the lingua franca of the world. The “ayatolla” of perfect English, the 20th century Oxford dictionary, has lowered the bar to accommodate several other developing formats for the language, Spanglish, Hinglish, Text and Twitter are examples of such non-rigorous formats. Coach Brown of the Los Angeles Lakers came up with an original of his own recently, “Whoever thunk that the Lakers would play so poorly last month.” Words are born and they die too. Roentgenogram was reborn as X-Ray. Sneaked has evolved into Snuck and Persistency to Persist. Actor also includes actress now. Anecdotally speaking, an unorthodox poet in Malayalam, Kunchan Nambiar did exactly this about 150 years ago. He silenced his critics by telling them that since they effortlessly understood the meaning of the new word already, the change is here to stay and the purpose is served.
My Lament and the Last Word
If only I knew one more major language, I could have enjoyed the humor and satire twice as much. Perhaps, the unsaid part of what you think is a more appropriate and safe last word than the unthought part of what you say.
P. Mahadevan is a retired scientist with a Ph.D degree in Atomic Physics from the Univ. of London, England. His professional work included basic and applied research and program management for the corporate sector and the Dept. of Defence. He taught Physics at the Univ. of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.