Friday, December 17, 2004

From Dan to Beersheba

Language is indeed a strange and marvellous thing. I couldn't help but laugh the other day when I read Grumpy Old Man's survival tips for homeless people forced to live outdoors in cool weather. His very first recommendation was to wear a wool toboggan. When I indicated my amusement in a comment, he didn't quite understand, for to him (in Alabama) a toboggan is what I call a tuque (or toque) and is what I am wearing in the first photo: or so I interpret from how he described it in a subsequent comment.

Of course, I have never understood toboggan to mean anything other than a contraption (as in the second photo) that kids use to slide down snowy slopes in their winter play.

No matter what you're preferred terminology for these items, now that you have viewed the two pictures, I am sure you can appreciate my merriment when I read his most serious advice. What a picture: someone wearing a woollen toboggan on his or her head!

I find the development of the English language to be a very interesting subject. Every English-speaking country has developed its own subset of English. British English differs from American which differs from Australian and so on. Even within countries, there are variations. What I call a cottage, Westerners call a cabin, and I believe that it is known as a camp in some regions. I eat western sandwiches, but Westerners, apparently consume denver sandwiches. I have even read that, in Canada at least, the transition occurs around Thunder Bay, Ontario. Imagine that: being able to pin it down that precisely!

Amazingly, English remains sufficiently flexible to allow us to easily and quickly clarify whatever muddles initially arise over terminological differences. It doesn't take one long to figure out that a boot on a British car is a trunk on a Canadian vehicles, or that their lorry is our truck. Whether one says schedule with the British sk of the American sh pronunciation, we readily understand each other. The same is true of a word like mobile; unlike most but not all North Americans, most Brits tend to eschew the ile ending and say moble (or mobil), but, once again, we readily comprehend.

I have recently read Bill Bryson's history of the English language, Mother Tongue, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Presently I am reading his Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. It's a heavier tome, somewhat more scholarly in tone than his usual fare. Following is some information from the book, which I will shortly tie into the title of this blog, but first, an aside about the word, presently, which I used several sentences ago.

Presently is yet another example of a difference in usage between British English and North American English. As I understand it, the word means soon or in the near future to the typical Brit. To those on this side of the Atlantic, it means now, and that is the sense that I intended above.

The other night, Bryson was listing some of the many expressions that developed in America in the nineteenth century: to make the fur fly (1804); no two ways about it (1818); to keep one's eye peeled ( 1833); to face the music (1850); and, so on. He calls them Americanisms. Most have become Canadianisms too, and at least one has become more associated with Britain: to keep a stiff upper lip (1815).

Then, I came to this on page 70: "Scores more have since fallen out of use ... from Dan to Beersheba." According to Bryson, this wonderful expression, from Dan to Beersheba, died out in the nineteenth century, yet I understand it completely. It means: all over, from here to there, from A to Z — that sort of thing. I understand this because my Dad used this expression. I had thought it his own as he was very knowledgeable about the Bible, and Dan was literally at one end of Biblical Israel while Beersheba was at the other.

Now I am puzzled. How did Dad, a Canadian who was born in the twentieth century, pick up an American expression that died out in the nineteenth century? It's hard to fathom. As I reflect, I have never heard anyone else employ this expression. So where did Dad learn it? His parents were British, and he was raised in Montreal. He spent a few summers, or parts thereof, in Maine, but that would have been in the 1920s, and the expression had supposedly long fallen into disuse by then. Even if he had heard it in passing as a boy, why would it have meant anything to him, and why would he ever have thought to adopt and use it?

I have no answers. I merely pass on this curious bit of trivia for anyone who can manage to plod through what is an atypical blog topic for me.

Before we part, let me share this little account with you; it is related to our language theme.

I was reading yet another Bill Bryson book, Neither Here Not There, to Cuppa the other night. A certain sentence made sense to me because I could see the punctuation, but I suspected that it might not be readily understood by a mere listener. I stole a quick a peek at Cuppa, and the puzzled expression on her face confirmed my suspicions.

Can you read this aloud and make it sound as though matching customers are not also sold out of cardboard boxes: "...the street was lined with seedy-looking discount stores — the sort of places that sell goods straight out of their cardboard boxes — and customers to match"?

If you can, well and good, but I certainly couldn't and was forced to stop and explain it to Cuppa — and it caused us to share a laugh.

Totally unrelated to this blog: here is a little humour from a blog which I just read. It's a take on what various famous people might reply to the ever-famous question: "Why did the chicken cross the road?"



Andrew said...


Thanks for the mention. I got a big chuckle out thinking of wearing what you consider to be a toboggan on my head. I then understood your amusement about the matter. Take care and stay warm up in the frosty north!


Anonymous said...

The English language never fails to amuse and amaze. It is indeed a marvellous thing. George Bernard Shaw claimed that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language." How right he was, yet we understand each other, (most of the time) and we understand despite the regional differences of English speakers around the globe. I'm curious about your fathers use of the colloquialism "From Dan to Beersheba". If he spent summers in Maine in the '20s he no doubt was exposed to Old Timers, remnants from a previous era who in the twilight of their lives may have used the expression with your father who was then a young "whippersnapper" which according to the OED is a "cracker of whips". How did that come to mean an impudent young pup? Eh?