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June 11, 2013
Column: When Sarah Palin met Shakespeare
I’ve been disappointed we haven’t had more snow this winter.
Yeah, I know, I know. I once had a colleague who was appalled by the very idea of the stuff. He took cold weather personally, wearing a watchcap – indoors – whenever temps slid below 40. (He was a born and bred Floridian, so we took pity.)
Another colleague on a business paper never failed to point out that businesses suffered mightily when flakes fell, ending his rant with, “You like snow? Move to Vermont. Leave me alone.”
But this year, for me the scarcity of snow is not just being cheated of the joys of being snowbound, liberated from the “Groundhog Day” prison of routine. It’s also missing the hope of seeing again a wordsmith who was on TV one afternoon mid-blizzard during Nemo
He was getting down from his Suffolk County snowplow just in time to be ambushed by a reporter sticking a microphone in his face, demanding to know the condition of the roads.
Startled, he paused, and then said, “It’s tredjadous out here.”
But it got even better because my poet couldn’t stop using his storm-minted word. It was tredjadous on the expressway. Sunrise? Really tredjadous. But the side streets? “Forget it, it’s too tredjadous.”
Making a point, I assume, that if you’re not guarding against treachery, tragedy awaits. Shakespeare manning a snowplow.
Now, the uncharitable would say he just got tongue-tangled and brain-bewitched and couldn’t find a way back to sense. But the bard would have joined me in a toast to the man who had committed a portmanteau, creating a new word out of two old ones. Shakespeare was famous for it. For example, in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” an aristocrat is angry someone has threatened to “infamonize” him, or defaming and making him infamous at the same time.
That other wizard (wizardress?) of English, Sarah Palin, in her very first tweet, portmanteaued by writing “refudiate,” and when called on it she fell back on, well, bardolatry, tweeting, “Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!”
My estimation of Mama Grizzly soared when I heard.
And can we trace the origin of the modern attitude of souped-up sarcasm to Lewis Carroll who invented a new animal from a snake and a shark, the “snark?”
Of all the quirks of English, including spoonerisms – we hear ourselves with horror saying the father of our country’s natal day is “Birthington’s washday” – or mondegreens – mishearing “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” as “the girl with colitis goes by” – the malaprop is the most common and gets us into the most trouble.
President George W. Bush was a master of the malaprop, as well as the portmanteau: “They misunderestimated me.” (Interesting that the man voters said they’d feel comfortable having a beer with didn’t drink and half the time he opened his mouth you’d swear he was hammered.)
He knew how difficult it was to put food on our families, and “families is where wings take dream.”
We’ll cut him some slack, however, because Mr. Bush wasn’t the first president to lose fights with his mother tongue. The poet E.E. Cummings had a one-sentence obituary for President Warren G. Harding: “The only man, woman or child who ever wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors.”
I come from a long line of malapropers. My brother Jack is so good at it he does it in foreign languages. Before he travels, Jack learns the language of the country. He’s a genius, so he can pick it up in hurry. But sometimes it can go bizarre just as fast.
Hiking in the mountains of northern Greece (President W. called the people of this country “Greecians”) on a cold November afternoon, we were lost and had no tent or sleeping bags. It was raining, getting colder and night was falling, when we encountered a man named Adonis, who saved us by guiding us toward a remote monastery where we could stay the night.
Jack and I started down the trail, and looking back saw Adonis, standing and waving. Jack shouted in Greek, waving, but our savior looked puzzled, cupping his ear. Jack screamed even more forcefully. Adonis stared, uncomprehending, shook his head sadly and walked away.
That night, warm and fed, Jack consulted his Greek/English dictionary and started laughing. He realized that when he was yelling with grave sincerity and heartfelt meaning to Adonis, he’d confused the word “luck” in Greek for “cheese,” and so had been earnestly wishing Adonis, along with his family and future generations, the best of cheese forever.
It’s in the genes. At a gala wedding anniversary celebration for my parents, with the entire clan gathered around, my mother clinked her wine glass with her knife to silence the crowd. “Here’s to you, Bill,” she raised her glass. “We’ve been through sick and sin.”
The story is now legend. But like the man on the snowplow, and remembering my mother’s smile, I’ve never been certain if the hilarious faux pas weren’t just a bit calculated.