A Diary in a Time of National Emergency
May 13, 2020
The National Emergency declared on this day two months ago has led to dramatic changes, most of them not necessarily good, for many Americans. While more than 15% of the work force has been laid off, a great number has also had their hours increased, especially in some of the health professions. We who have been sheltering-in-place, with retirement incomes or other regular sources of funds, feel a mingled sense of gratitude and survivor’s guilt. Yet one thing we have is time, and it is to how I have spent my time in the last two months that this essay is devoted.
I am in the fortunate position to love solitude, to be healthy enough to produce work every day, and to have enough motivation to take on tasks that require a lot of my energy and my mind. Apart from the normal activities of having enough food on the table, keeping up with friends and loved ones, and occasionally taking time off, I have engaged in the following activities, usually six or sometimes seven days a week.
I. My Book(s) of Idioms, Turns of Phrase and Interesting Words
On March 6, I was out to dinner with some friends. One of the women, who teaches English as a second language, said that one of the most challenging tasks faced by her students was to recognize and use idioms and turns of phrase properly. An idiom is a collection of words which, by themselves, don’t mean what the entire phrase does (e.g., “burn bridges,” or “steal someone’s thunder” or “go back to square one”). My friend asked if I could come up with a list of about 25 common idioms, and then come up with definitions and some example sentences. I said “Sure.” Five days later I came up for air after identifying about 440 idioms and turns of phrase. When I began to write about them, I realized that I wanted to do what I called “scholarly definitions” of the words/idioms, where time of origin, examples throughout history and larger historical context of the idiom’s growth were amply illustrated. The project soon turned into something more than my friend asked for, and it is my fault that it did. But it has led me to spend three to four hours a day, usually from 7:00 --10:30 a.m. in researching, writing and planning to write on words and phrases. Sometimes, I hope, the stories are interesting; sometimes I give my own unique “take” on the word. I write about three or four of these essays a day. I have written about 300 of these essays so far, or the equivalent of about three books. Here are three examples:
A. Steal my/someone’s thunder— to use the ideas or policies devised by another person for one’s own advantage. Or, more recently, to win praise for oneself by preempting someone else’s attempt to impress. “My lab partner stole my thunder when she claimed that she did all the work for the assignment, though I contributed a great deal.” The humorous origin of the phrase is mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). A dramatist who has long been forgotten, John Dennis (1658-1734), invented the noise of thunder as a device to add a touch of drama to the performance of his plays. But the play in which he was to demonstrate this new device had a very short run; it closed almost immediately, and he didn’t get a chance to use the device of thunder. Shortly thereafter, while Dennis was attending a performance of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, he was surprised that the director used HIS thunder in the opening scenes of Macbeth. Chagrined, he rose in the crowded theater and shouted, “Damn them!. . .they will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.” The phrase was still popular in the twentieth century. George Orwell used the phrase in 1937, “It is important. . .to disregard the jealousy of the modern literary gent who hates science because science has stolen literature’s thunder.” Or, more recently, “My brother is the star athlete of our high school; whatever I succeed in, he is constantly stealing my thunder.” Someone takes your effort, your hard-earned success, and gets the glory for it. This idiom is a vivid way of saying that, hard as the experience is to stomach.
B. Back to square one/to the drawing board— go back to where one started, with little or no progress having been made; go back to the beginning because your first effort failed. Though many idioms come from hundreds of years ago, the first appearance of “back to square one” was only in 1952 and was connected with game Snakes and Ladders, popularly known in the United States as Chutes and Ladders. From 1952: “He has the problem of maintaining the interest of the reader who is always being sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders.” There are 100 squares on the game board. In Snakes and Ladders you slide down from the head to the tail of a snake and you climb up the ladders. In some twentieth century editions of the game, this sliding down a snake lands you back on the first square (from square 34). You are, literally, back to square one. Hence, the idiom. The game originated in India, with more snakes than ladders on it. Therefore, there were more ways to go down than up. When coming to England in 1892 there were equal numbers of snakes and ladders. The purpose of the game was to teach a kind of morality/virtue (generosity, faith, humility) to children. The ladders represented virtues and the snakes, vices. That the original game had more snakes than ladders was to teach the children that there were more pitfalls and dangers in life than good things. The game was introduced into the US and made by The Milton Bradley Company in 1943. It quickly became Chutes and Ladders when American kids got scared of snakes on their board and Milton Bradley had to come up with a replacement for the snakes. In Chutes and Ladders one only goes “up” ladders and “down” chutes. The Milton Bradley’s game from around 1952 only shows a chute taking you down to square 19. Perhaps this reflects a kind of American spin or optimism. You might fall, even from a great height, but you “only” go back to square 19. . .though the Indian version of the game had no such optimism. A similar idiom, “Back to the drawing board,” first appeared in the New Yorker in 1965: ”A fiery mushroom cloud, translatable by the most cretinous moviegoer as. . .’Back to the drawing board, you plucky amoebas.’” The idiom, back to square one, remains quite popular in America today, but few are aware of its connection with a children’s game.
C. This third example took me a little longer to research and write, but is one where I am suggesting a new origin for a word.
Skedaddle—Everyone generally knows that skedaddle, to use the refined language of the OED, means “to retreat or retire hastily or precipitately.” It first emerged in the context of the US Civil War (1861-1865) but then was quickly taken up in general usage to mean what it does today: “to run away.” Examples of its usage, like the demons cast out from the Gadarene demoniac, are Legion. “No, I told Mack to scram, beat it, skedaddle, hit the road Jack and don’t you come back.” Simple word. Useful. The only problem is that even though the word is of relatively recent coinage, and we can spot the source of that coinage, we don’t know how the word actually came about. It emerged in the context of the US Civil War, in an August 10, 1861 article in the New York Tribune, “No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they skiddaddled.” An explanation is given: “A phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the seceshers (i.e., those from the South) make of their legs in time of danger.” So, it emerged among the Northern troops. Etymologists have dived into the fray to try to determine where this term might have emerged. Danish or Swedish roots have been suggested, but none has been convincing. The OED is nonplussed. So, I give my approach here. I think the term “skedaddled” emerged from an educated Northerner who had studied his classical and Homeric Greek and ended up on the battlefield. As we know, the experience of Joshua Chamberlain of Maine, the hero at Gettysburg and a classics scholar at Bowdoin College, was far from unique. The Homeric word for “scattering” is the verb skedannumi. It appears 19x in Homer (14 in Iliad and 5 in Odyssey) and can refer to things that scatter—the mist, troubles from the heart or, more to the point, troops scattering after a meeting (Iliad 2.398). Attic writers also used skedannumi, though the New Testament preferred skorpizo/diaskorpizo to express the idea of scattering.Nevertheless, as intellectual historian Carl J Richard has shown (The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States) a classical education in general and exposure to the poet Homer was the educational gold-standard not simply for elites but for many others before the Civil War. One could easily imagine an officer, aware of or even steeped in Homeric Greek, coining the word skedaddle and his troops picking it up.
When 10:30 a.m. arrives, I take a break, do my exercises inside and then take a walk until about 11:30 or 11:45 a.m. I return then to my second large task, translating Chinese texts. I have been working with the Professor of Chinese at Willamette University for several years, and he has also let some of his best students work with me. Now I am engaged in a translation project with one student, herself a native of China who moved to America when she was about ten, in which we are translating some of the fairy tales of Tan Zhenshan (1925-2011). Tan is unknown in the West but has been identified as one of the significant Chinese folk storytellers honored on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage Bearers. None of his work has ever been translated into any language. This presents an enormous allure but also significant difficulties, as many of his stories are suffused with regional or dialect words. Every day I either transcribe a story or try to translate a few pages of it. Here are a few opening paragraphs with my translation of a recently read story. This isn't the hard stuff!
The Tortoise Changes Into a Water Snake
在早，有这么一户姓李的人家，老头老太太死得早，家里就剩下李李老大，李老二哥俩过日子。哥俩过日子， 自然是这里老大又登爹又当妈， 种地除草， 缝补洗涮, 辛辛苦苦地把弟弟拉扯大了。
"Once upon a time, there was a family named Li. Both the father and mother died young, leaving an older and younger brother to live together. With the two brothers living together it was natural that the elder brother was/played the role of both father and mother. He tilled the ground and pulled the weeds, sewed the clothes and did the wash/did the sewing and washing, and with great effort/difficulty managed to raise his younger brother."
哥俩长大成人了， 先后娶了媳妇， 又分了家。李老大是一把过日子的好手了，从小就磨练出来了，家里家外的活计都能拿得起来。 李老大结婚以后，就盼着能生个儿子， 可媳妇一连生了好几个都是姑娘， 两口子不甘心，等啊盼啊， 到最后， 可算是生了一个男孩，儿子是有了， 可家里孩子也多了，吃穿就更紧巴了。 就这样， 李老大家的日子就一直没过起来。
"The two brothers grew up/grew into adulthood, got married, and lived apart. The older one had learned how to make life work well for him; from early days he had honed his skills, and both inside and outside the house his performed his handiwork. After the older brother married, he very much wanted to have a son, but his wife kept giving birth to girls. The couple wasn’t resigned to／content with this situation but just kept waiting and hoping. Finally, she bore a son, making their children quite many/giving them a large family, but with all the mouths to feed and clothes to wear, things were very tight/they were hard-up financially. This being the case, the elder Li family didn’t really achieve much success/get going."
III. Greek and Latin
A. At 2:00 I take another break, do more exercises and take another walk, before returning for my big meal of the day. By 4:00 p.m. I am back at work on my third major task of the day. This is a two-part task. I am in the process of translating and writing brief commentaries on at least the 557 fables of Aesop, as they appear in their earliest Greek and Latin forms. Sometimes that is exceedingly difficult to discover, since often the transmission history of the texts is either muddled or complex. Nevertheless, I have decided to translate the Greek fables from Chambry’s 1927 collection of 359 of them, and then the Latin of a few classical and medieval authors. Starting at about 4:00 p.m., then, I cut and paste a Greek fable, with the text on the left side of the page and my translation on the right. Often doing these translations is rather straightforward for me, but usually they are challenging and sometimes even a bit daunting. The actions of the various animals aren’t always clear, and the morals are often put in compact and difficult-to-translate prose. I often compare my translation of the Greek text with Chambry’s 1927 French translation or with an online Italian translation. This usually helps. Here is an example of one that I translated and commented on a few days ago. Sorry for the smaller print:
Αἰσχρὰ δούλη καὶ Ἀφροδίτη. The Shameful Slave Girl and Aphrodite
Αἰσχρᾶς καὶ κακοτρόπου δούλης ἤρα δεσπότης. A Master loved his ugly and mean slave girl.
Ἡ δὲ χρυσίον λαμβάνουσα λαμπρῶς ἑαυτὴν ἐκόσμει She took gold which she had received from him and adorned herselfbrilliantly.
καὶ τῇ ἰδίᾳ δεσποίνῃ μάχας συνῆπτε· By so doing she touched off a quarrel with her mistress.
τῇ δὲ Ἀφροδίτῃ ἔθυεν συνεχῶς The slave girl sacrificed continually to Aphrodite,
καὶ ηὔχετο ὡς ὡραίαν αὐτὴν ποιούσῃ. begging her that she might make her beautiful.
Ἡ δὲ καθ᾿ ὕπνου φανεῖσα τῇ δούλῃ Aphrodite appeared to her in a dream
ἔφη μὴ ἔχειν αὐτῇ χάριν ὡς καλὴν αὐτὴν ποιούσῃ, said that she didn’t want to do that:
«ἀλλ᾿ ἐκείνῳ θυμοῦμαι καὶ ὀργίζομαι ᾧ σὺ φαίνῃ καλή.» “For I am angry and enraged against that man to whom you appear beautiful.”
Ὅτι οὐ δεῖ τυφοῦσθαι τοὺς δι᾿ αἰσχρὰ πλουτοῦντας καὶ μάλιστα, Thus, one ought not to be deluded if one is enriched by shameful means,
εἰ ἀγενεῖς εἰσι καὶ ἄμορφοι [πρὸς αἰσχύνην μείζονα]. Especially if one is lowborn and without beauty.
Then, I wrote this commentary:
This is a brutally pessimistic story. One wonders why it even receives the appellation “fable,” since normally a fable is replete with animals who represent characteristics common in humans, but here we just have two humans and a goddess. The story presents a perceptive description of a man who is attracted to a ugly slave woman, definitely not in his “class,” and the woman who wants to change what she is for the sake of the man (she wants to become beautiful). Neither she nor anyone else comes out of this story looking good, so to speak—not she, not the man, not the goddess Aphrodite. And the ultimate point of the story—that loving someone outside of one’s class goes against the ways of nature—is depressingly realistic even though many people do actually marry successfully those not in their class. Let’s massage the story more closely.
It’s not so unusual that a man “loved” a slave girl. That happened all the time in antiquity, either because the man was horny, the slave girl was an easy target, or the wife was distant or complaisant. But it is not either a commendable activity or an activity with much of a future to it. It can only continue to exist if the world doesn’t change at all. To make the story more stark, he loves a slave woman who is described, literally, as “shameful” and “malignant.” The story won’t let us celebrate this as a class-transcending, appearance-transcending story of true love. Rather, it shows the slave woman trying to beautify herself, but this ends up with her in conflict with the wife. Other translations of the third line just render it as “becoming a rival to” the wife, but the language of “touching” and “swords” is literally behind the words in that line. Conflict, I think, rather than simple rivalry, is in view. Well, one would think that the goddess would solve all this, whether by scattering some of her own fairy dust/shooting her own arrows into the middle to make it all work out, but she is mad. She is mad at the man who loved the ugly slave girl. The text doesn’t say why she is mad but a reasonable assumption may be that he has loved her without Aphrodite’s “style” of loving or without Aphrodite’s “blessing.” So she is mad at him. She may also be mad at the slave woman (as hinted at by a moral in a different version of the story) because “you are not indebted to me for your charm”—i.e., the man found the slave woman attractive not because of Aphrodite’s work, a work that makes women beautiful, but despite that work. The one of the three that looks the least bad is the slave woman. After all, she just wants to look her best to be attractive to the man—a request, however, that Aphrodite declines to honor. Yet, the moral puts the “blame” for this whole incident on her shoulders. She is the one who was “deluded” because she was enriched “by shameful means.” That is, she hadn’t properly realized that her role, and destiny, in life was to be a mean, unattractive slave woman. She was trying to vault beyond her station in life. She was deluded in this quest (deluded because she thought that wearing gold might change her situation), a delusion made worse by her low birth and ugly features. So, what is the “message” or “meaning” of this story? Don’t try to do an end run around Aphrodite’s normal ways of operating in love. No hope is given for a slave woman to “rise above” her condition, nor is there any encouragement for marriages that don’t “match” people from the same station in life. Be realistic; conform yourself to these rules, or you may have the goddess mad at you.
III. B. Then, I take a break around 6:00 p.m. for an hour and either walk or go out for a drive. I like the countryside around my home; at this time of the year there is no green more green than on the hills outside of my city. About 7:30 p.m. I return for my work on a Latin fable of Aesop. So far I have focused on the fables of Phaedrus, a first century slave who compiled and added to what he received from earlier bearers of the “Aesop tradition.” I write out the Latin text on the left of my page, and then translate it on the right, line by line. Often, as any who engage in translation know, coming up with accurate and readable translations is a challenge. After I complete the translation of one Latin fable, I write a short commentary on it, usually no more than 300-400 words. Here is an example of the one I did on May 11.
Soror et Frater Sister and Brother
Praecepto monitus saepe te considera. Warned by this story, you ought to take stock of yourself often.
Habebat quidam filiam turpissimam A man had a most ugly daughter
Idemque insignem pulchra facie filium. And also a son noted for his handsome features.
Hi, speculum, in cathedra matris ut positum fuit, These, while horsing around childishly, happened to look in a
Pueriliter ludentes forte inspexerunt. Mirror that was lying on their mother’s chair.
Hic se formosum jactât; illa irascitur The boy boasted about his attractive form; but she. in her anger.
Nec gloriantis sustinet fratris jocos, Couldn’t put up with the jests of her boasting brother,
Accipiens, quid enim? cuncta in contumeliam. Receiving them (how could she not?) altogether as insults.
Ergo ad patrem decurrit laesura invicem, Thus, she ran off to the father, to be avenged in turn.
magnaque invidia criminatur filius, And in her great spite, she alleged the son to be
vir natus quod rem feminarum tetigerit. A person born a man who was just a little too close to female things.
Amplexus ille utrumque et carpens oscula The father hugged each in turn, gave them a kiss and, as it were,
dulcemque in ambos caritatem partiens, Gave them both a share of sweetness and love.
“Cotidie,” inquit, “speculo vos uti volo, “Everyday,” he said, “I want you two to use the mirror;
tu formam ne corrumpas nequitiae malis, You, son, lest you mar your appearance by your unpleasant inconsiderateness;
tu faciem ut istam moribus vincas bonis.” You, daughter, so that you might overcome your appearance through good habits.”
My commentary on this story is as follows: What’s a father to do when the daughter is, like the Biblical Leah, “hard-featured,” and her brother is not only possessed with handsome features but loves to flaunt them? This story, in which no animals are present (which technically would make it a “fable”), tells us. But before we get to the father’s reaction to this disparity, we see the siblings interact. Looking into a mirror that they found accidentally when playing, the boy sees his handsome features. Like another mythological figure, Narcissus, he seems to be overly fond of himself, not simply boasting of these features but apparently also letting his sister know that she didn’t measure up to him. Infuriated, she wants to retaliate, and so she runs off to dad, ready to spring on dad a story of her brother’s effeminacy. The father, wisely ignoring both the son’s boasts and the daughter’s calumnies, decides to show equal love to both and then give advice about how they should use the very mirror they came while playing around. Each should use the mirror but for different purposes. The boy should look at his handsome form and resolve not do anything that would mar these features. The girl should do everything to overcome nature’s stingy gift to her not by perfumes and make-up, but through the cultivation of virtue and good habits. The son is not to damage his outstanding feature; the daughter is to do everything to overcome her unattractive feature. Perhaps the two pieces of advice are particularly appropriate to address to one person—the reader: take care to cultivate your special trait, and also take care to minimize the effect of your signal fault. By so doing, you will attain a measure of outer, and inner, beauty. The story itself carries no moral, other than the Socratic-like “know yourself” or “consider yourself often.” Cultivate the good in you; try not to let the bad define you. What better advice could a father give to a child/children?
Concluding My Day: This takes me until about 9:15 or 9:30 p.m. I don’t allow myself to work on any more of these aformentioned tasks beyond 9:30 because I seek the last two hours of my day for relaxation, writing emails, listening to music, or meditating/praying. At the end of my day (around 11:15 p.m.), I sit at my dining room table in very dim light, praying, meditating, thanking God for the day and ultimately giving up to God all my knowledge that I have gathered during the day. With that completed, I go to sleep, to get up by 6:30 the next morning to continue with these large tasks. It is among the most creative and productive periods of my life.