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Home / Articles / Features / Wise Up! /  Language
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Sunday, November 11,2012

Language

By David Bruce

• Bob Newhart is known for his comic delivery, which is deadpan, frequently slow, and occasionally stuttering. Once, a director tried to make him speed up his delivery, but Mr. Newhart told him, "This stutter built me a house in Bel-Air. Don't mess with it." On another occasion, as Mr. Newhart was traveling on an airplane, he listened to some comedy tracks on his headset, where he heard one of his "Button-Down" stand-up routines. Unfortunately, the track had been edited to take out all his pauses — which completely threw off the timing. Mr. Newhart told his friend Betty White that he felt like standing up in the aisle, apologizing to the audience, then performing the routine the way it should be performed.

• As a 5-year-old child, Sid Caesar learned several words in foreign languages while helping out in his father's restaurant. Many peoples of different ethnic groups came in, and they took great delight in teasing young Sid. The Italians would teach him a dirty word in Russian, then send him over to the Russians' table to say it, then the Russians would teach him a dirty word in Italian, and send him over to the Italians' table to say it. This training in languages was of enormous help when Mr. Caesar began to speak foreign-sounding gibberish on his TV shows.

• Alexandra Danilova was asked about the difference between a very good ballet dancer (a soloist) and a ballerina (of course, not every woman ballet dancer is a ballerina — only the very best are). She replied, "Ballet is 'Giselle.' Door of cottage open. Pretty young soloist comes out. You happy and say 'I hope she do well.' Another performance. Is also 'Giselle.' Alicia Markova come out. She not danced yet. One step only, but you sigh and say, 'Ah! ballerina!' You do not ask, you know. She is star. She shine."

• Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote in his famous dictionary that H seldom if ever "begins any but the first syllable of a word." John Wilkes made fun of this statement in his Publick Advertiser: "The author of this remark must be a man of quick appre-hension and compre-hensive genius; but I can never forgive his un-handsome be-haviour to the poor knight-hood, priest-hood, and widow-hood, nor his in-humanity to all man-hood."

• Bonnie Hellum Brechill's 5-year-old daughter started playing with a little Amish girl, although the Amish girl spoke a Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. Later, Ms. Brechill asked her daughter if she had understood anything the Amish girl had spoken — she had not. Ms. Brechill then asked, "But you played so nicely together. How?" Her daughter replied, "We understood each other's giggles."

• When Ted Shawn was attending college in Denver in the early part of the 20th century, dancing was not permitted; however, Mr. Shawn and his fraternity brothers wanted to hold dances. Therefore, they sent out invitations that said, "You're invited to come and play folk games with us to music on a slick floor."

• In England, to "give someone the bird" means to boo them. On the New York opening night of "Bitter Sweet," No l Coward walked into Evelyn Laye's dressing room and presented her with a silver box. When she opened the box, a mechanical bird emerged, flapped its wings, and sang. Mr. Coward said, "I wanted to be the first to give you the bird."

• Léonide Massine found it difficult to learn English; however, he was happy when he learned that in England it is possible to get almost anything you want by using the word "please." By the way, Mr. Massine's name was originally "Miassin," but he changed it because Sergei Diaghilev felt that it was "too difficult" for audiences who spoke English.

• Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novels such as "Cancer Ward" were unavailable in the Soviet Union, but they were smuggled out of the country, translated, and published abroad. This led to an underground joke: Q: Do Soviets read the novels of Solzhenitsyn? A: Yes, but only if they can read a language other than Russian.

• At a meeting of an actors union, Dame Sybil Thorndike spoke out in favor of amateurs, saying that "amateur" means "lover." Kenneth McClellan spoke out against amateurs, asking, "Who wants a lover without technique?"

• Sometimes servers get in a hurry and speak in shorthand. One harried waitress served food to Merce Cunningham dancers Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber. The waiter said to Ms. Brown, "You're the fried chicken," and to Ms. Farber, "You're the stuffed shrimp."

• The Spanish pianist and conductor José Iturbi did not know English when he first arrived in England. At a cafe he wanted tea, but he was not able to make himself understood. He solved the problem by sitting at a piano and playing "Tea for Two."

• According to Peter Ustinov, his reputation for being multi-lingual is exaggerated: "That is a false legend built up by unscrupulous press agents. I can only speak French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian — and I can survive in Serbo-Croat; but then I have a great gift for survival."

• The term "steal one's thunder" comes from John Dennis (1657-1734), who invented a new way of producing thunder for the stage, but who was incensed when other theatrical managers stole his new method of producing thunder.

• Theatrical actress Beatrice Lillie was married to Sir Robert Peel, one of whose ancestors (with the same name) organized the Metropolitan police force of London. In recognition of this ancestor, London police officers are known as "Bobbies."

• Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, fought two battles against the Romans. He won both battles, but lost very many senior officers, causing him to say, "One more victory against the Romans and we're beaten." (This is where we get the term "Pyrrhic victory.")

• While working in Germany, American dance pioneer Ted Shawn found that the people he worked with all enjoyed making the same joke — at the end of the day, they would tell him, "Auf WiederShawn."

• Slang varies from country to country. In Great Britain, a fag is a cigarette, and a faggot is an item of food — you can go into a grocery store in Great Britain and buy Birdseye "Frozen Faggots."

 

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