Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Once Was Ordinary

My husband's watching a TV programme where the word 'cassette' has just been uttered. 'It's funny', he says, 'cassettes were just part of everyday life once, but now they're not, and it's only now, hearing the word out of the blue, that I suddenly notice what an odd word it is. Where did it come from?'

'Well', I say, 'it comes from the French, of course, Old North French, to be exact - the word for box, "casse". That's what a degree in modern languages is for.'

Actually, I say no such thing. I just quickly look it up on the internet, which is where I discover that the word was formed in 1969, from Old North French, to label the new invention that was the little plastic thing containing audio tape.

Which only goes to show that there really is no reason to bother with a degree in modern languages - unless you want to experience the quiet private satisfaction of knowing that you've read Eugene Onegin in the original, and it really never will be as good when read in translation; not to mention the rather special kind of abstruse smugness that comes from opening Clive James's new translation of Dante and thinking, 'That bit about a "keening sound" where did that come from? I'm sure it's not in Dante's text' and then checking and finding that, sure enough, it isn't there and your memory really isn't as bad as you'd imagined.

Such  pathetic and fleeting moments of pleasure won't earn you a living, of course, but for me they justify the years spent poring over dictionaries and grammar books. Many - the majority even - may not agree. Each to their own, I guess - or as we modern language types like to say, 'One man's meat is another man's poisson' ,(pathetic, I know, and it doesn't even make sense - I know, I really do know).

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