To Be Absolutely Frank

Where Did That Come From?

We confidently speak in words and phrases we know nothing about.

By 4.18.02

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According to a bumper sticker you may have seen recently, "THE LAST TIME A NATION LISTENED TO A BUSH, THEY WANDERED IN THE DESERT FOR FORTY YEARS."

Our president, who is known to read the Bible, would surely take that as a compliment, if he didn't scorn it as sacrilegious flattery. He would recall that the nation in question wandered in the desert on its way from slavery to the Promised Land.

But the bumper sticker's author obviously didn't mean it as praise. Either he didn't think about what he was saying, or was so tickled by his nifty play on the president's name that he simply didn't care.

This reminds me of a similar misunderstanding I once witnessed in a more solemn context. As a wedding present for a woman who was studying Italian literature, a fellow professor-in-training bought a silver platter and had it inscribed with a line from Dante: quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante ("that day we read in it no farther").

No doubt this was meant as a romantic gesture, since Dante's words refer to passion emerging between a man and a woman as they read a chivalric romance. Unfortunately, their passion is adulterous and lands them in Hell. (The characters' historical prototypes were murdered by the cuckolded husband, who was also the adulterer's brother.) Not the most auspicious present for a newly married couple.

It's particularly hard to excuse this blunder, since the offender presumably had to check the quotation in the Inferno, where the damning context is unmistakable. More forgivable is the widespread misuse of Shakespeare, whose words have so permeated our language that most who quote them don't recognize their source, or vaguely attribute them to some kindly old sage of that name.

James Joyce makes fun of this tendency in Ulysses, when Mr. Deasy approvingly cites the Bard's advice, Put but money in thy purse. Stephen Dedalus knows that the words belong, specifically, to the Satanic manipulator Iago in Othello.

An even more common example is Polonius's going-away speech to his son Laertes in Hamlet. How many times when I was growing up did my dad remind me: Neither a borrower nor a lender be? Your dad probably told you the same; and, like the rest of Polonius's speech, it's not bad advice as far as it goes.

So what then does it mean that Shakespeare puts those words in the mouth of a pompous old fool whose meddling leads to several deaths, including his own? If nothing else, that parents should speak on the authority of common sense and experience, rather than invoke literature as if it were holy writ. Of course, holy writ presents the same dangers, as that anti-Bush bumper sticker goes to show.

An old teacher of mine used to complain about the expression "quoting out of context." "How else can you quote?" he would point out. New meanings are inevitable when words are removed from their original sources. That's part of what we call communication. It's just a pity when the new meaning is an impoverished version of the old.

My favorite example of this is "Midas touch," which everyone takes to mean something good, forgetting what we all learned in grammar school -- that when King Midas asks for everything he touches to be turned into gold, he doesn't realize that food and water are also part of the deal, and nearly dies before the god Dionysius takes the power back.

The moral of the story, in other words: be careful what you wish for. Of course people won't stop wishing for things -- such as unlimited wealth -- that they ought to know are bad for them. So maybe it's fitting that we should use "Midas touch" with no sense of irony. By missing the point, generation after generation, we make it all the more eloquently.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.