BITS OF ENGLISH II
Thomas Russell Wingate
As a sign of mourning, flags are flown at the middle of the pole rather than near the top.
On land, this is called half staff.
At sea, this is called half mast.
In military usage, the national flag is often called the colors. Regimental flags, and the flags of commanders, are called standards.
To join the colors is to enlist or to accept a commission.
To be called to the colors is to be summoned to military duty.
Everyone should study Kipling’s “Harp Song of the Dane Women” as an instructive specimen of perfect grammar.
Borges declared it to be Kipling’s finest poem.
As expanders of language and idiom, the most potent poets in English have been Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Kipling.
The last two were champions of liberty. Thank them for that.
A boat is smaller than a ship.
If you are a nautical person, you may call your ship “my boat,” in the affectionate way that a farmer may call his tractor or his horse “my old girl.”
Writers, especially landlubbers, should keep ships and boats distinct.
A sailboat has one sail. A sailing ship has several.
H.M.S. Monotonous had three masts and twelve sails.
Sailboats and powered vessels are small craft (singular and plural).
Small craft (plural) are also called sail (singular).
The lake had eighteen sail [i.e., eighteen small craft with or without sails].
Material captured by the elements is flotsam. Material thrown overboard to lighten ship (e.g., in fear of shipwreck) is jetsam. Maritime law treats them differently.
A ship is moored to a dock. When a ship is kept in place by an anchor, she rides at anchor.
There is an order only a captain may give: Abandon ship!
When a man deserts his ship, a different term is proper.
Herman Melville jumped ship in the Marquesas in 1842.
Jumping ship is (no surprise) illegal everywhere. But (no surprise) it happens everywhere—usually on land.
Man overboard! does not mean (although it might) that someone has jumped ship.
A ship is manned by her crew and their officers.
Dandelion, manned by eight women, cruised from New York to Miami.
Taken together, they are the ship’s complement. (Notice spelling.)
The captain paid his compliments to passengers at his table.
The ship’s complement was forty-two.
There is an opposite usage employed on land. To jump a train is to ride illegally.
He escaped the girl’s angry brothers by jumping the train from Medford to Portland. His gun kept him safe from the hoboes already in the boxcar.
Our language and its parents have a built-in bias against left-handedness.
Latin: dexter = right, sinister = left.
We say that someone has (or lacks) manual dexterity.
Someone who is both right-handed and left-handed is said to be ambidextrous (Latin: ambi = both). Here competence is equated with the right hand even when it is not restricted to the right hand.
We say that someone has sinister intentions.
In heraldry, bastardy is indicated by a bar sinister.
French: droit = right, gauche = left.
We say that ignorant, insulting behavior is gauche. We say that crudity is gauche. Wearing sneakers with a tuxedo is gauche.
Spilling spaghetti on the bride’s gown is gauche—or you might choose to call it maladroit.
An adroit carpenter does not sever his thumb.
We say that something is the right thing to do, or the wrong thing to do, but we never say that something is the left thing to do.
A notary public attests that all is right and proper.
We speak of human rights. We do not speak of human lefts.
We say we have a right to think this, to speak that, to choose (especially to choose the right). We do not say we have a left here.
We assert property rights. We do not assert property lefts.
Handshakes do not involve the left hand. You are expected to understand why without being told.
The Bible sees fit to use left-handedness as a metaphor for being out of kilter (as opposed to being on track). Again, you are expected to understand why without being told.
Here are two passages from the Revised Standard Version (1952) which bring forth the built-in dextrous bias of English (and, I can only suppose, Hebrew).
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalms 14:1)
A wise man’s heart inclines him toward the right, but a fool’s heart toward the left. (Ecclesiastes 10:2)
We similarly contrast the straight with the crooked.
In the American Revolutionary War new flags were shown.
Some depicted living things—pine trees, rattlesnakes—and bore slogans: AN APPEAL TO HEAVEN, LIBERTY OR DEATH, DONT [sic] TREAD ON ME. Most used stripes and stars—usually with five points, sometimes with six, sometimes with eight.
When Englishmen arrived in the American colonies, they knew nothing of rattlesnakes. Their culture had prepared them with stories about cobras hissing, but, since rattlesnakes are absent from the Old World, who knew?
The rattlesnake is to America what the kangaroo is to Australia.
Eagles were not used as an American emblem¹ until after independence had been won. A sentiment that the American Republic was the Roman Republic given a second and better chance swayed the aesthetics of the Founders.
American statesmen wished the new country to be respected. Eagles soar; rattlesnakes slither. Latin is so much older than English that the Great Seal of the United States uses three Latin phrases, one Roman numeral, and no English whatever.
The Declaration of Independence achieved permanent literary stature without one word of Latin.
In Hollywood spectaculars we see Romans hauling around, and posing before, rather American-looking eagles. The influence is the other way around, save that Americans use an eagle known here but not in Europe. This is why European eagles in heraldry look weird to Americans.
Triskaidekophobia (fear of thirteen) was ignored by Americans. The number turns up everywhere in American symbolism. On the Great Seal of the United States (1782), above the eagle’s head, we see thirteen five-pointed stars (arranged in a six-pointed star) inside a halo of thirteen clouds. The bird clutches thirteen arrows and an olive branch of thirteen leaves and thirteen berries.
The Gadsden Flag (1775), supremely conspicuous and wholly un-British, is yellow, with a coiled rattlesnake above DONT [sic] TREAD ON ME. The snake has thirteen rattles; the slogan has thirteen letters. (The missing apostrophe calls attention to the number.)
Revolutions, be it noted, are often about pronouns.²
“Me” is a pronoun. But the slogan is spoken by the rattlesnake. The rattlesnake is using the singular, since it is alone.
The number of its rattles attests to unity of purpose: “from many, one” (in Latin, thirteen letters: e pluribus unum).
Don’t Tread on Us would have a different meaning. It appears to be in this sense that many are using the Gadsden Flag today. Discontented citizens (plural) and not the threatening reptile are doing the speaking.
An imperative suppresses a subject: in this instance, you. It means: Don’t [You] Tread on Us.
In 1775, everyone understood the unmentioned you to be across the Atlantic.
Say what you will about our present government, it was not put in place by foreigners.
You must also admit that the Gadsden Flag communicates more vividly than our politicians do (in public).
A Study of History, written over decades by Arnold J. Toynbee, has a precision of style no one writing in English will ever surpass.
It seems probable that the Pyramids, which have already borne inanimate witness to the existence of their creators for nearly five thousand years, will survive for hundreds of thousands of years to come. It is not inconceivable that they may outlast man himself and that, in a world where there are no longer human minds to read their message, they will continue to testify: “Before Abraham was, I am.”
Languages, like human beings, are unable to win victories without paying a price, and the price a language pays for becoming a lingua franca is the sacrifice of its native subtleties, for it is only on the lips of those who have learnt it in infancy that any language is ever spoken with that perfection which is the dower of nature and the despair of art.
The illiterate cannot read—because they don’t know how.
Throughout most of history, most people have been illiterate all their lives long.
The aliterate are a different sort. They can read, but they choose to do so as seldom, as quickly, and as shallowly as possible.
Aliteracy is the vilest form poverty can take.
Our social scientists have a fondness for quantifying information.
When was the last time you saw a statistic about comparative rates of aliteracy?
Are we right to suspect that such information is not being gathered?
We know for a certainty how many aliterates are reading this website.
1 Earlier generations in New England would have cited Leviticus 11:13-19.
2 See Reverential Usage on website.