Thursday, March 07, 2024

Misunderstood Archaisms

Confronted with yet another stretch of several rainy days in a row, I'm reminded of the passage in the New Testament that illustrates divine impartiality with the statement that God sends rain equally on the just and unjust. We residents of the often waterlogged east coast of North America could be inclined to think the rain falls as a punishment, as in this humorous verse:

"The rain it raineth every day

Upon the just and unjust fella,

But more upon the just because

The unjust hath the just's umbrella."

On the contrary, though, in the arid Middle East of the original quotation rain comes as a welcome gift.

We often hear about people morally "walking the straight and narrow." In the King James version of the Bible, Jesus' remark actually says that on the path to life "strait is the gate and narrow is the way." "Strait" means "tight," as in "straitjacket" (NOT straightjacket). And when you think about it in the context of the original quote, does a straight gate make much sense?

Nowadays the vast majority of educated people probably know Juliet isn't asking about Romeo's location when she says, "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" "Wherefore" means "why," a counterpart to "therefore." She's asking him to go by some other name instead of the one given by the family hers has a feud with.

The medieval expression "passing fair" sounds odd to us, like faint praise. Dorothy Parker wrote a sardonic poem on this topic that ends, "If minus D be passing, she is passing fair." Doubtless a brilliant writer such as Parker actually knew "passing" in this phrase is short for "surpassing"; a passing fair lady would have been a stunning beauty.

Mondegreens, misheard song lyrics, fall into a related but separate category. There's the probably apocryphal case of the child who named a teddy bear Gladly after the alleged title character of the hymn "Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear." I've often suspected many children, hearing the chorus of a favorite Advent song about the angel Gabriel's visit to the Virgin Mary, "Most highly favored Lady, gloria," may wonder why Jesus' mother is being called Gloria instead of Mary. Not a song, but church-related: One of our children once asked me whether "salvation" meant "wine." After all, the server offering the chalice at the Communion rail often recites, "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation." Back to songs, after innumerable exposures to Creedence Clearwater Revival's lyric, "There's a bad moon on the rise," I still can't cure myself of hearing it as "bad moon on the right" (despite the implausibly political implication). WIth the mumbling way they deliver the line, "rise" really sounds like "right" even if I strain my ears.

Creative misinterpretations can be used to good effect in science fiction. For instance, in a STAR TREK episode the Enterprise discovers a planet with the rather silly premise that their societies evolved from a world identical to Cold War-era Earth, right down to the language they misread in their sacred document. (Maybe the Enterprise slipped into a parallel universe and didn't notice?) I once read a story of which I remember nothing except that a distant-future nation was named Tizathee, after their post-apocalyptic interpretation of "My country, Tizathee, sweet land of liberty." And in Jacqueline Lichtenberg's Sime-Gen series, the remains of Ancient highways are called "eyeways," because people assume they're named for the straight view of the landscape they offer.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt.

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