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Joe Carillo
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« on: January 04, 2017, 07:55:38 AM »

Great Titles in the Making
By Jose A. Carillo

My wife Leonor was out doing the groceries when I put the finishing touches to “Lost in Translation” and e-mailed it to the newspaper running my columns. When she came back and had laid down her foodstuffs and goodies, she casually picked up the printed manuscript on the computer table and started reading. “This is charming,” she said. “You use the phrase ‘salad days’ to describe yourself when you talk about Jacques Prévert talking about pâte foie de gras. And I think you explained pâte foie de gras quite well. But are you sure your readers will understand ‘salad days’? For all you know, some of them might think you were a rich kid eating nothing but salad and caviar in those days, which I know you were not.”

Oh, I said, I’m sure they would know what I mean by “salad days.” That’s an allusion to my youthful, inexperienced times, which I actually look back on with great fondness. I’ve used that phrase often since, well, my salad days, and I know that a lot of other writers have used it themselves in their memoirs and in their newspaper features. But Leonor pointedly said: “That’s right, but are you sure they knew exactly what they were talking about when they used it and how they got to using it in the first place?”

In my case I said “Yes,” but for the others—? Her question intrigued me. It gave me the idea to write precisely this chapter you are reading now. There must be some value in talking about the English idioms and figures of speech that modern writers have not tired of using again and again. And what a better way to start the effort by tracing their genealogy, beginning with “salad days” with which I was already familiar.


For those who just happen not to know it yet, one of the earliest written works that used the phrase “salad days” was William Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra. That was in the year 1606 when the Stratford tanner’s son was about 43 years old, no longer a tyro in dramatics himself. He used the idiom in that scene where Cleopatra was ruing past mistakes and miscalculations in her personal affairs: “My salad days, when I was green in judgement, cold in blood, to say as I said then.”
   
With that remark, many Shakespeare lovers have paid tribute to the Bard by using “salad days” to mean rank inexperience and cupidity (this last word, by the way, despite the allusion to the winged god of love, does not mean “lovestruck” but, in this context, “a very hearty appetite”). And as far as I know, at least one modern-day writer got his inspiration from another phrase in that one-line lament. The novelist Truman Capote, writing about the final days of the two doomed young killers of a Kansas family in 1959, entitled his classic non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. It is, I am almost sure, a quiet but powerful allusion to Shakespeare in 1606 talking in Cleopatra’s voice.


There is another English figure of speech that had fascinated me since my salad days, but I was always so in a hurry to ever bother looking it up. It is the intriguing idiom “woman of straw.” My first encounter with it was in the 1964 film Woman of Straw, which starred a much more voluptuous Gina Lollobrigida than today and what was then a still amateurish but handsomer Sean Connery. The movie blurb said “It’s so easy to set fire to a woman of straw,” and I took the idiom at face value: it must somehow mean a female scarecrow that you put in a ricefield to drive away the pesky birds, but that you can easily get rid of by setting aflame with a flick of a match. But the starstruck image of my salad days was totally wrong. Decades later, surfing the Web, I discovered something more elemental and profound and much deadlier about women and men of straw.

It turns out that in early England, certain poor men and women would loiter around the law courts offering themselves as false witnesses for a fee. To show to prospective litigants they were available, they would wear a piece of straw in one of their boots. They were people of no substance or capital, very much like the alert, bright-eyed palabuylaboy (loiterers) we can see even today around local police headquarters, waiting for a cue from a police sergeant who is not convinced that you have a strong enough witness or testimony to have a “fileable” or “winnable” case. They no longer mark themselves with straw on their shoes, though; now they often wear fake Hilfiger shirts and possibly genuine Nikés. But people like these were—and still are—the real “people of straw” of this world, not the overly pliant women and men who would fold and crumble at your gentlest touch.

And talking of figures of speech about court cheats and scalawags, I am reminded of the idiom “baker’s dozen.” I still use this idiom to test how good the English of applicants to my company is, and I am distressed to find that less than 30% are supplying the correct answers. How many items, indeed, are in a baker’s dozen? Are there 12 or 15 or double the ordinary dozen? No, not at all. It is the unlucky number 13. In old England, bakers were fined heavily for shortchanging customers with less than the correct weight of bread. To guard against being brought to court, which was such a bother, they began making it a point to add an extra loaf to every 12 they sold. That’s actually how the baker’s dozen came about.


Now, before closing, I would like to bring up the idiom “giving something the whole nine yards,” the last four words of which is the title of a fine Bruce Willis and Natasha Hensridge black comedy shown on cable every now and then. You would think that “the whole nine yards” is a measure of the cloth for a bride’s impossibly long wedding train, or simply making it to the finish line in an interscholastic race. Wrong. It precisely means giving “absolute maximum effort” when trying to win or achieve a goal. It is vintage World War II, when American B-17 aircraft guns exhausted their ammunition belts nine yards long to bring their enemy targets in Europe and elsewhere to their knees. (circa 2002-2003)

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times circa 2002-2003 and subsequently appeared in Jose Carillo’s book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language. Copyright © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo. Copyright © 2008 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.
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