I recently began trying to regain my street cred as a know-it-all and smarty pants by reading and comparing The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (COD) and The Oxford English Reference Dictionary (OERD).
I know. You’re wondering whether I could do such an exciting thing without suffering heart palpitations. Well, I am here to tell you that it is slow going. At first glance, it might seem like one of those tasks that one can just plow through without pausing to take a breath, sort of like reading an engrossing novel in one sitting.
That has proven to be not the case. That’s because, after I notice differences, I still have to figure out what they mean. Still, to start at the beginning, it is noticeable right away that the OERD has 28 appendices and world maps at the end. Its poorer Canadian cousin has only 4 appendices. In addition to sections on British and American rulers, the English (the snobs!) have access to articles on the US Constitution, the United Nations, the European Union, as well as the Plant and Animal kingdoms. While we Canadians have none of that, we do have a scintillating section on the Prime Ministers and Governors General of Canada, which they, oh how unfortunate, do not.
So right away, you get a feeling that people who read the Canadian Dictionary, are assumed to be more parochial. Why should we know about the rest of the world when we have all this Canadian stuff! Or maybe, if you want more general knowledge (as conceived of by the English) you are expected to read the OERD while the COD is for those who specialize in studying Canadians, a sort of handy guide for members of the PQ.
As if to reinforce this message, there is a section on where Canadian English comes from and there is no equivalent section on where British English comes from – hey either we all know its origins from our general education or we don’t care where it comes from because that’s the language everybody speaks anyway!
The prefaces, too, are of unequal length. OERD has 6 paragraphs laying out the number and types of entries but they don’t actually tell you where they got all this. It’s not necessary because everything written or spoken in English is the source. The COD has lengthy explanations to show how Canadian it is. Are you reassured or alarmed to learn that one of the key sources for the COD is Canadian Tire Catalogues? You will surely be reassured as to the Canadianness of this dictionary by the emphasis on activities “of particular interest to Canadians”, such as logging, wheat farming, hockey, figure skating, sport fishing and hunting.
Oh, and the best is that they had a group of thirty AMERICANS who reviewed possible entries to tell them whether the words were truly Canadian or whether they were only American words that Canadians used. Good, eh?
So, when it comes down to the final result, the editors are pleased to report that out of 130,000 entries, they have 2,000 Canadian words and senses, 500 Canadian regionalisms, 1200 Canadian place names and 800 Canadian biographies, a grand total of less than 5,000 or 3.9%. But this is made up for by the fact that every entry is written “from a Canadian point of view.”
In practice, this means for example, that the COD entry for Clark Gable mentions that he was in Gone With the Wind without reporting that he played the role of Rhett Butler. This fact is, however, specified in the OERD because the British haven’t seen the movie as often as we have (just like the Americans!).
Trying to learn more about being Canadian, I may have learned about the British. But as they say, “Never give up! Never surrender!” (Galaxy Quest, 1999).
Jurgen the political maven calls me yesterday. I had left him the challenge of making jokes about politics that we hadn’t heard yet. In snippets, he left the rant below on my answering machine.
“I just tuned in to the Republican Convention and started to have visions of the end of days. They had a split screen showing speakers thundering out their vision on one half the screen and Hurricane Isaac just thundering out on the other half.
“I thought, one if by water and two if by fire and brimstone.
And if you dip the fire and brimstone into the water do you get a Tea Party?
“Michelle Bachmann, now there’s the kind of Christian who can just love you to death. Literally. She’s the kind of Christian they should have thrown to the lions because she would have eaten them alive. Not that I have anything against lions since they’ve become civilized and formed a service club.
“On the other hand, this is in some ways better than a three-ring circus. Too bad there’s just one large grey elephant.”
“Just enjoy the spectacle. How many times are we going to have a candidate named after a baseball glove? But has he been worked in yet? Will he catch all the strikes thrown at him?
“Actually, his real name is Milt but he changed it for the presidential race because it sounded too Jewish. He would have kept it if they had allowed him to change his last name to Friedman.
“And what about Ryan? He used to be Jack Ryan until he got into trouble for proposing sexual shenanigans to Jeri Ryan, who was his wife! He’s going to be in a new movie called The Hunt for Red November.
But he too changed his name so no one would remember his other life as the GOP candidate who coulda beat Obama in Illinois. Now he has a name in keeping with his revived Christian values, taken directly from The Fountain Head. It’s Paul or as I call him, Rabbi Saul.”
“You think I forgot the other guys? First there’s the guy who is named after the Hebrew word for lightning, “Barak”. That’s Thor to you, comic book fans. But since he killed Osama as an Avenger, he’s gone all military on us so we call him Bar(r)ack. I think he should be known in a way that reassures American voters that he’s out to get terrorists. How about Hussein? If he calls himself Barry again, everyone will think he’s a crooner.
“And finally Joe Biden. Now there’s a guy who takes ordinariness too far. As any Joe will tell you. We here at the Central Registry have decided to add to his nomenclature to increase his name recognition. How about Joe Biden Histime. Who me? I’m just waitin’ to see what happens.
“Whether he wins or loses the next election, his future has retirement written all over it.
“He and Obama make a good team: Joe is the shlemiel (the awkward guy, the waiter who trips and spills the soup on the customer); that makes Obama the shlemazel, the customer who gets the soup spilled all over him.”
“You know if you want to laugh, there’s a lot of choice. I can easily change channels and watch the Quebec election. On the other hand if I watch in English I might get shot. And there’s the Senator’s wife who was arrested for yelling at her husband on a plane. Why didn’t she wait ‘til she got home like everybody else? …..silence…. Okay that’s all I’ve got.”
Just enough for an article.
Just finished a book called “The Know-It-All” about a guy who sets out to become the smartest person on the planet by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z. He fails. Not in his reading but in his quest. Because that’s not how to do it.
How do I know that? Because I was a know-it-all myself once. Names I had when I was younger: Smarty pants (earlier grades); Clear university material (grade three teacher); Know-it-all (higher grades); The Brain.
What would I be called now? Large Bodied? Big Boned? I’ve gone from brains to bones in forty years. As I get older, I have to use Google more and more. Things that were in the old lumber-room that was my memory, seem to have dropped out of it. I am a know-it-all no more.
I still have some bad know-it-all habits though: Dropping useless bits of information that I happen to know into any discussion; going on and on when a topic I am interested in comes up. If you want to know more about know-it-alls just send me an e-mail and I’ll expound at length.
It took me a long time to understand that when someone asks “How are you and how’s your family?” It doesn’t mean they want a blow by blow description, an analysis of your various health issues, or a full report of everything you read on the internet about your latest disease. Unless I haven’t seen someone for a very long time my answer nowadays is “Fine, thanks. How are you?”
Once when I was teenager working at a summer camp and knew it all, at least school stuff, I ended up with a group of girls in their cabin. After a half hour of banter when I was somehow very amusing, the eldest of the girls, from Texas, asked me to come next door to her private cabin. I agreed and she took my hand leading me out. I smiled awkwardly at everyone else and was mystified by the sudden silence that had descended.
When I entered the older girl’s cabin, she lay down on her bed. I found myself alone with a sultry girl who was lying on her bunk like the clothed Maja (look it up!), giving me a smoldering look when she asked me about being Jewish. This was my downfall. I spent the next two hours explaining to her the details of Jewish history and religion while her sultry look and those heavy eye lids got heavier and heavier. When she finally fell asleep I tiptoed out of her cabin and wondered whether I had perhaps given her too many details.
Imagine my embarrassment the next day when all the girls I worked with in the kitchen wanted to know what I had done when I was alone with this apparently sexy girl. When I explained that we had discussed Judaism, they at first looked at me in shock, their jaws open. Finally one of them burst out laughing and they all joined in.
They came up to me and punched me in the arm, “Good one, Rube, good one! What a joker! What a polite Canadian!”
I had no idea what they were talking about so I smiled like Mona Lisa. After that I suddenly found myself with the reputation of a lady’s man.
See? Not all knowledge can be found in a book. Not even the Encyclopedia Britannica. Not even the latest edition.
But I still think there may be something to it all. So instead, I plan on reading and comparing the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. That way, while I won’t know everything, I’ll at least know what it means to be a Canadian.
“So I ask you,” says Jack to me the other day, “is there anyone who hasn’t had odd or peculiar experiences with bathrooms?”
“I’m not sure I have,” I replied, “but I have just experienced someone asking me an odd question about bathrooms. Could you perhaps expand a bit on your topic? What seemed odd or peculiar to you.”
“The first thing occurred when I was in a western style restaurant and when I went to use the bathroom, there were two but each with a different horse’s head in a small wooden plaque in the middle of the door. “
“How could you tell the difference between the men’s room and the women’s room by what you saw on the plaque?”
“I first tried to find some clue in the features of the two horses. Perhaps one had longer eyelashes. Perhaps one had a more flowing mane. One did not look any more fiery or aggressive than the other. They were both the same size. I thought that the woodcutter should have carved the horses from the back to give us a better clue.”
“Perhaps the bathrooms were co-ed.”
“Do you think I am a horse’s ass? Of course the thought finally hit me but I still had to decide which one to use. I opened each a crack and knew right away which one to use – the one on the left.”
“How did you know?”
“That was the one with the toilet seat up.”
“Very good sleuthing.”
“The next thing happened to me at a burger joint where I had to use the bathroom. The door was locked so I asked for a key at the front desk. There was no key I was told: the manager controlled the door from the front. So I went back to the door and after one or two yanks it opened. I was about to use the facilities when I heard the manager’s voice: ‘Good! You got in!’ This gave me pause. Did she hear me? Was she watching me? I scanned the room for microphones and cameras. Every device on the wall looked suspicious. This put a stop to my ablutions and I exited without doing the necessaries. I felt too embarrassed and nervous.”
“That is a bit odd, to hold conversations with your customers while they are in the bathroom. Too bad I’m not a lawyer. I feel a lawsuit in the making.”
“Well the last example was perhaps the most disconcerting because, in a way, it is very common. It was one of those bathrooms with motion detectors for everything.”
“But the designers didn’t count on a klutz like me. I stepped away from the urinal and it flushed but I moved too close to the next one on my way to the sink and it also flushed. At the sink, I did the obligatory to get the soap and then moved to turn the water on to wash. Except the tap was too close to the soap dispenser and my hand kept crossing the line and dispenser kept dispensing – a kind of premature dispensation. When I waved my hand in front of the paper towel dispenser it spit out towels on the way up and the way down. I reached down to pick up the towel when a gentleman entered the room and bumped me all the way to the urinal which promptly flushed and splashed my face. This necessitated another wash with soap and hand drying with predictable results.”
“I think you would be better if they had optional manual sinks, urinals and towels. Not everyone can drive automatic.”
I recently realized that I have more trouble lately writing anything of length. Let me rewrite this for a tweet: “just noticed – can’t write long stuff now.”
Who knows? Maybe it’s even better. I have less patience now. I switch pages if something takes longer than 5 seconds to download. This all makes sense. We only have so long to live. Why waste it waiting.
I think I have acquired a short attention span. So I texted my political expert, Jurgen, about this and asked for his help in writing the column.
Jurgen called me and launched into the following bit. While playing Mah jong on the computer, I just had to listen and take notes:
Want to remember another world a lifetime ago? Think Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. Who?
And Layton? Didn’t he say something like: Being unafraid is better than being afraid; being relaxed is better than being worried; being happy is better than being sad. So don’t be afraid, don’t worry and be happy. Can’t remember but as long as I got the gist.
On the Newsweek cover, I noticed that Obama is the first gay president. That doesn’t mean he can give you the low down on the down low. It just means that he had to struggle to figure out who he was. That makes sense. He’s the first black president who is white, the inverse of Bill Clinton. And anybody who thinks dog tastes fine with ketchup has some cultural adjustments to make.
But that would make Romney pretty gay too. He would be the first Mormon president. Think of how much he has had to adapt to fit in with Evangelicals who think he is a member of a kooky cult. Yet now, Evangelicals would swallow their prejudices, hold their noses and vote for him. How about that for making a transition? He might be ok with having more wives than Mohammed. But he hasn’t come out of the closet yet on that.
Ron Paul has finally ended his active campaigning for the presidency. Not because anyone forced him but just because he made a free and individual decision. And because he didn’t have any money. Apparently even Libertarians in American society can’t get anywhere unless they organize a movement, which is the equivalent of someone deciding to herd cats. Good luck with that.
In Canada, Mulcair and Harper are presented as slightly skewed mirror images of each other, except Mulcair has the warmer eyes, the beard and moustache and is very reassuring in his nice suit. Oh and he wants to really tax the rich and slow down the growth of the oil industry.
Harper just wants to get us all used to having a smaller government. But he realizes Canadians are junkies who need to withdraw slowly. So he is proceeding while, like an illusionist, trying to distract us with his other hand holding draconian laws on crime or letting some of his MPs open other issues.
Meanwhile, the Liberals are undertaking a kind of striptease before announcing their leader. Who is hiding behind all those veils of process and leadership race regulations? Could it be Bob Rae who is coyly but demurely flashing those big baby blues? This strategy completely confuses the other parties. They are not quite sure whom to attack yet. But one would caution them not to wait too long or the voters might not know who the leader is in the election.
Jurgen finished and I learned that sometimes it pays to just listen and nod. In this case, I got a column out of it.
I saw my grandson dump some old tissues through the gate to the downstairs and when I went to look I also saw a kippa and a telephone. This is apparently one of his favourite activities. Someone commented that he would gladly dump random objects into a drawer if he had one. This reminded me that I had such a drawer at home and how I thought of it as a metaphor for a life as a series of random events and stories that held together just because they happened to the same person. Here then is a collection of such stories that did happen or could have happened to me.
When I woke in the hospital, I was informed that when I had walked through the park looking in joy and wonder at the treetops, the blue sky and the amazing cloud patterns, I had made straight for the ditch. A week later when I awoke in the hospital again, I was informed by giggling nurses that when I was walking on the sidewalk bent on avoiding every crack and mindful of not stepping on any gum or other detritus, I did not notice I was walking under a scaffold and was hit by a brick.
I was visiting Chicago for a baseball game when I started to feel uneasy. The team that came out on to the field was the Chicago Black Sox. That was a team that had not existed for some time. My unease and suspicion grew when I saw the newspaper announcing that the Chicago White Hawks had won the hockey game in overtime. But the thing that finally convinced me I was either in another world or in a dream was when the Radio Sportscast lamented the losing streak of the basketball team, the Chicago Mad Cows. I forced myself to wake up and smirked. Luckily I had come awake in time to watch the baseball game on T.V., between the Chicago White Sox and the Toronto Blue Herons.
I found myself in a courtroom of a strange kind with myself and my lawyer sitting in a small stage surrounded by an amphitheatre with the judge and jury and the prosecuting attorney seated on pedestals. My wife and children were there in the audience, holding hands and looking distraught. Spotlights flashed on and off depending on who was speaking. I stood accused of being a not nice person and each time I denied it everyone laughed, the laughter and disdain growing when the prosecutor played video evidence of my behaviour. My lawyer, one of my relatives, advised me to plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court. I wanted to explain that each incident was shot from the wrong angle or left out crucial information. The judge leaned over me, his teeth glinting in his smile. He looked like the Rabbi from my Hebrew School. I woke up in a sweat. It was morning. I went to the bathroom and splashed my face, then went down to the kitchen where my father was making coffee. “Good morning, Dad,” I said, “I’m sorry.” My father looked at me in complete bewilderment at first but then shaped his mouth into a rueful grin. “Of course,” he said and continued smiling.
I was standing in the living room with my two sons, their children in the background playing with my daughter. A high-pitched inquiring voice came from behind us. “Daddy?” it said. We all turned at the same time and, speaking together, answered, “Yes?” When we laughed and looked at each other, we noticed, not for the first time, that we all had the same smile.
I really enjoy Yiddish and would love to share that enjoyment with others but how to do it when they do not speak the language? How to convey not only the word for word translation but the general attitudes and assumptions of those with whom I speak it? What is the flavour of yiddish?
I could perhaps refer to the many words that English speakers use. But did I have to shlep all the way here to tell you about it? I’m not kvetshing, it’s just my shtick. I don’t even consider it chutzpah to brag about it. Not that I want to push things too far kennehora. Do you think I am meshugga? When I told my my friend I heard he had cancer he said, “cancer, shmancer, as long as I have my health.”
With apologies to William Shakespeare and Wayne and Shuster, in order to transmit that flavor in English, here is a re-imagined scene from Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar”
Caesar: I can’t sleep with all the thunder and lightening because every time, Calpurnia kicks me with her feet.
Calpurnia: Caesar, you look tired and it’s raining. You’re not going to work today, are you? You’ll get sick.
Caesar: Sick, shmick, I’m going. You think I’m going to melt? When my enemies see my face, they’ll disappear.
Calpurnia: Well, it’s true your face could scare anybody. It’s a face that could sink a thousand ships. But I kept dreaming someone was kicking you and you know you’re always sorry when you don’t listen to me. Remember the last time it was raining when I said, ‘Julie, don’t go’? You went anyway and got sick as a dog. And who had to feed you the chicken soup?
Caesar: Stop nudging me! I go because I am Caesar.
Calpurnia: Of course you’re Caesar. You think I took you for Mussolini? How many times do I have to tell you “Julie, don’t go”? Oy gevalt are you an akshan! You’re just going on purpose because I told you, “Julie don’t go.” You always do what you want, no matter what anyone tells you. You think you’re the Kaiser? I’m telling you, you’ll see I am right.
(Caesar claps his hands on his ears and runs out while Calpurnia runs after him, “Julie don’t go! And don’t forget your umbrella!”)
With further apologies, but in a more romantic vein, here is a scene between Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo: Sha! There is the tzatzke Juliet. She is like the sun, beautiful from far away, but when she gets closer, you have to shut your eyes. There she is, patting her cheeks. They’re so zaftig, I just want to pinch them. What is she saying?
Juliet: Romeo, Romeo, why is he named Romeo? Your father couldn’t find a nice Yiddish name like Moyshe or Lebel? Only his name stands in the way of our going under the chupa together.
Romeo: Hmmm. I could call myself Reeven.
Juliet: But he’s so good looking and so smart. After all, a latke tastes the same even if you call it a potato pancake. Yes but a Rose always smells strong and sweet. Romeo would smell strong even if he was named Yosef and isn’t that him I sniff out in the garden?
Romeo, are you there, there?
Romeo: Yes I am there, here.
Juliet: Oy sweetheart!