The other day at a Chinese restaurant my fortune cookie said, "Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question." Mystified, I read it to my friend who didn't get it either. That led me to reflect on the confusion of the English language.
I recalled being with a group of people when a woman said, "My cousin Ben bought the farm a few days ago." I wondered what kind of farm it was, hoping it had cows and baby goats. One of the other women commented, "That's too bad, I know how close you were to Ben."
Naïvely, I asked what they meant. Five incredulous faces looked at me. "Don't you know what 'bought the farm' means?" With a shrug, I shook my head. One of the women responded, "It means someone passed away." Feeling silly, I said, "I guess people don't refer to farms in New York City."
Another woman, a bewildered look on her face, asked, "What do they say in New York?"
"They say 'He kicked the bucket,' " I responded, not willing to admit they would really say, "Ben dropped dead." New Yorkers tell it like it is.
Recently a retired Navy pilot explained where the expression "bought the farm" originated. While learning to fly, pilots practiced over farmland. If someone crashed, damaging livestock or crops, the Navy often paid the farmer for damages.
Someone else told me that "kicked the bucket" came from a method of execution in the Middle Ages, mainly hanging. At the zero hour, when the pail the prisoner was standing on was kicked away, the prisoner was hanged. Thus, they said, "He kicked the bucket."
That conversation led me to speculate about other jargon in the English language. Imagine trying to learn English, especially if you come from a country like Japan, or India or Finland. I thought about teenage American code language. "Did you get to first base?" Or, "Did you score?" I wonder what someone learning English would think if she heard "He drove me up a wall," "I smell a rat" or "I'm losing it."
While getting a manicure at a nail salon, I asked two of the Vietnamese women there if they knew what "keeping his nose to the grindstone" meant. Both shook their heads. I explained that it meant being focused, concentrating on what one is doing.
As I envisioned words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, in addition to words that sound alike but are not spelled the same nor have the same interpretation, my head began to spin.
Then I mulled over regional accents and their effect on the English language. Even though I don't believe it, I've been repeatedly informed that I have a strong New York accent. I never noticed this when I was young. I don't notice it now! When growing up, did I suspect Elizabeth Taylor spoke any differently than I do? Did I think my mom and dad sounded different than Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert? Not at all!
Did I notice that movie stars had perfect diction and sounded like they were educated at Oxford University? No! I discerned no difference between my heroes of the silver screen or shoppers on Delancey Street.
When I moved to California, a melting pot of transplants seeking new opportunities, things changed. I'd talk to people and I could barely understand a word although I knew it was English. It became obvious that folks from Arkansas and Missouri spoke in a totally different manner, as did people from Georgia or West Virginia. They had their own special way of saying things.
The man I eventually married came from Oklahoma. He once said to me, "That man doesn't know 'come here' from 'sic him.' " With his Oklahoma accent, it sounded like gibberish to me. After I asked him about 22 times to repeat what he said, he shrugged, laughed and kissed me. Maybe we fell in love because we couldn't understand each other.
In Los Angeles, people at my office made fun of the way I spoke. They asked what I was talking about when I requested a cup of coffee. "Cawfee? What's that?" Or why did I say "idear" when I meant idea? I began to notice that I put the letter "r" on the end of words and that I could not pronounce words that had an "r" in the middle. I couldn't even pronounce "New York." It came out "New Yawk."
My accent became my identity. I'd run into someone and they'd greet me with "Hello, dahling." In defense, when someone made fun of my accent, I'd put my chin in the air and try to look down at them (not easy to do when you're only 5 feet tall) and say, "I don't have an accent - you do."
As years went by I was able to pinpoint certain accents. When I ran into New Yorkers it was amusing to say, "You're from New York, aren't you?" They seemed surprised. I picked up that some Canadians pronounce "out" in a different way so was able to casually comment, "You're from Canada, aren't you?" That always made them wonder how I knew. Great fun!
Although English is a tough language, it can be very funny and it's worth the challenge. I'm grateful that I speak English - maybe not the King's English, but it works for me.
On StarNet: Read recent columns by Alexis Powers at azstarnet.com/alexispowers
Email Alexis Powers at firstname.lastname@example.org