Memories with Richard Bleil
For two years, after graduating with my undergraduate chemistry degree and before attending graduate school, I worked as an analytical chemist industrially. In my first gig, I worked with a man from Iran named Illya. His wife was still in Iran, but we would periodically work on certain projects together. Three women worked in the front office, each one more gorgeous than the next. They were simply stunning. One day, all three of them came back into the lab clearly excited. Unbeknownst to us, his wife was on the line for him, and they were happy to be able to share the news.
“Illya,” one of them excitedly said, “there’s a call for you, you lucky dog!”
“Yes,” Illya happily replied, “I am a lucky dog because I work with a bunch of bitches!”
The three were very angry. As they turned to storm out, one of them pointed at me and snapped, “YOU explain it to him!”
Poor Illya was the victim of the English Language. He was technically correct and was certain that he was giving a compliment. After all, they had called him a “dog”, so that must be a compliment, right? And the female of “dog” is “bitch”, so surely, he was complimenting them, right?
There are so many things in the English language that are holdovers with old meanings. Bitch is the proper term for a female dog but has been used as an insult for so long that its meaning has been, well, overtaken with negative connotations.
Just today, I heard my online real-estate teacher use the phrase, “call a spade a spade”. This phrase has always sounded odd to me, until I realized that before my time, “spade” was a derogatory term for minorities. This dates back about a hundred years, so it’s no wonder that it’s not heard frequently anymore, but the phrase still holds roots in racism. I kind of cringed a little bit when he used the phrase, even though I’m sure that he did so out of ignorance and without the intention of racism.
The English Language changes, and is changing, and not always for the better. In the old Flintstones cartoons, the theme song would declare “We’ll have a gay old time.” Today, nobody would use the word “gay” because of its connotations with alternate sexual orientation, but back then, “gay” meant “happy” or “joyous”, but not just that. It was a specific kind of exuberant joy, and to the best of my knowledge, there is no other word in the English Language that quite has this shade of meaning for joy.
Sometimes, old uncommon words can be used for a humorous effect. I’ve been known to express how much I enjoy mastication. The word always catches my “victim” off balance because it sounds so much like “masturbation”, but in truth, it simply means that I enjoy chewing. I learned this word in a movie that, honestly, is one of my favorites. It’s just one of those terms that a person can masticate on.
Every once in a while, on my social media page, there will be another meme about ancient words that we should bring back. These are old English terms that have seen their usage wain and often have marvelous sounds and definitions, such as “brabble”. To brabble is to quarrel about trifles, like so very many arguments on social media these days. Or in Congress. It just sounds like a great word, to brabble. It even sounds like what it means. But if you disagree, let’s brabble about it.
Sometimes older phrases or terms sound so much better than the new equivalents. There’s a new term, yolo, that frankly I can’t stand. It stands for “You Only Live Once”, but the word is clunky and strikes me as lacking finesse. Not so very long ago we used a marvelous Latin phrase, “Carpe Diem”, a phrase I often have joked about meaning “dead fish”. In fact, it means “seize the day”, and seems to roll off of the tongue, wounding sophisticated and educated. How “yolo” could have ever overtaken “carpe diem” is a mystery I will never understand.
Some terms have their definitions changed. “BOGO” used to stand for “Buy One Get One”, implying that the second (of equal or lesser value) is free. BOGO sales were very popular. Now a shoe company has stolen that phrase and uses it to mean “Buy One Get One Half Off.” Yeah, no, I don’t think so. They should be using “BOGOHO” instead, but I guess that sounds too insulting since a hoe today has nothing to do with gardening.