Tetigisti-ing the Rem Acu

How do we know where a word exists in a language vis-à-vis all the other words of the language? By that I mean, is the word high or low, formal, informal, or somewhere in between, dressed in a suit and tie or T-shirt and grungy tennis shoes? Is it used mostly on formal occasions (belles-lettres and solemn ceremony) or in everyday speech? In other words, how do we know what is often referred to as register (first used in this sense by the linguist Thomas Bertram Reid back in 1956 according to Wikipedia)? Where does the word sit on the spectrum of use?

When dealing with our native tongue, we develop that sense over the years simply by dint of using the language, associating the word, or a certain pronunciation, or even a grammatical usage (For shame, Johnny! Remember, a double negative is a no no! A hoary chestnut that is still probably steering learners of English in the direction of a passing grade on TOEFL tests around the globe) with a certain setting, social situation, age group, reading material, and so on. If you can read this and find it at all interesting, and someone said to you, “He don’t speak English so good,” you would immediately know that either the person is a native speaker of English with probably only a minimum of formal education; or he or she is pulling your language leg. You know that third-person “don’t” and “good” used as an adverb are tokens of “low” or very informal spoken English and not to be employed if you want to pass for educated. On the other hand, advanced education be damned, you wouldn’t get terribly far as a pop lyricist if you scrupled to use third-person “don’t.” It doesn’t mean a thing if it doesn’t have that swing… The structure is now fixed in the English popular song tradition, not the least because “don’t” is a single syllable, a rather full vowel, and can take a strong accent. It fits (“You know it don’t come easy…,” “It don’t matter to me…,” “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe./It don’t matter anyhow…,” this last song lyric by a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature no less!).

To illustrate the idea of register, I can co-opt a classic example of three major strata that exist in English and cleave nicely along usage lines, i.e., “give up” (bedrock Anglo-Saxon) with respect to “surrender” (borrowed from the French) and vis-a-vis “capitulate” (straight outta Latin). In terms of register, “give up” is everyday English, “surrender” less so, and “capitulate” only gets trotted out on special occasions (or, as I remember reading it, a simple soldier gives up, his brigade surrenders, and the whole bleddy country capitulates – although obviously a soldier could also be realistically heard saying “I surrender, I surrender…”). By the way, “outta” above is of course a spelling convention (merely aping the widespread pronunciation of “out of” and echoing Straight Outta Compton) that situates my parenthetical remark in a low or street register, a common tic of comic writers, pairing low with high, “straight outta” and talk of Latin. Linguistically, this is all premised on register.

On a personal note and a particularly exclusive register, the irretrievably corny and unhip exclamation “pshaw” is one of my earliest memories of reading in, I suppose, the first grade of my American school. I don’t think there is any comparably odd consonant cluster in Dr. Seuss’s books, which is really where I had already learned to read, and it so puzzled me that I have remembered it and the feeling of “this can’t be!” at its discovery to this day. In terms of register for English, it was, already back in 1964, an oddball out-of-place backwards-kin kind of term (N-grams puts its peak presence at 1902, while the online Collins sets its highest recorded use in 1797) and I can now only conclude that either our first-grade readers were exceedingly out-of-date, or, like one of those everyday monsters comically philippicked by the great French stand-up Pierre Desproges, the author was a cruel and sadistic horror who enjoyed laying the occasional linguistic booby trap in children’s books , chuckling to the grave over how he had gummed up neuronal bandwidth in heads throughout the land. He was truly mental. “Pshaw” thus occupies a particularly rare place in my idiolect, a register like those legendary forms in Japanese that solely exist for the unimaginably rare chance that you might have to reply to the emperor’s inquiry about your health over tea. It also evokes an odd formal register in current English generally; anyone, say a learner of English, looking up the word will find it indicated as “rare” (the online Oxford much more accurately prefaces the definition with “humorous, dated”). Finally, the term makes me long to read the adjective pshavian, based on the name of the well-known comic playwright George Bernard Pshaw. In contemporary English terms, “pshaw” just got pwned.

The question of register in terms of translation came up for me recently with the death of Stephen Hawking. A German-speaking friend and colleague wrote to me and a mutual French-speaking friend about how we would translate into French the following quotation, specifically the sentence beginning “It has been a glorious time…”:

At a conference in Cambridge held in celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday in 2017, Professor Hawking said “It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics. Our picture of the Universe has changed a great deal in the last fifty years, and I’m happy if I’ve made a small contribution.”

The ensuing discussion among us raised for me the question of how we know, learn, suss out the register of a word, turn of phrase, grammatical construction, etc. in an acquired language. I lived for over seventeen years in French-speaking countries, principally in French-speaking Switzerland, and so quite naturally through reading but also, importantly, by aural osmosis I absorbed what I might call the “brainfeel” for lots of areas of French. It means that when I overheard here in Brooklyn a pleasant woman greet a local merchant she knew and apparently regularly saw with a cheery Bonne journée! I realized straightaway, regardless of the accent, that neither was a native-speaker of French. The locution immediately sounded wrong because, at least where I had used French daily, you would mostly say bonjour on arriving and bonne journée only when departing – not strictly a question of register, of course, but emblematic of how we know where what we say fits into a language as a whole. (How did I know the merchant wasn’t a native speaker, if he knew any French at all? A French merchant probably would have pointed out to her the error by then.)

For the translation of Hawking’s declaration, I suggested something but admitted outright that it was probably no good and that our native speaker would come up with a good solution, and in fact he did, offering three possible translations off the cuff. I then pointed out why I thought one turn of phrase (une époque bénie des dieux – literally a time/period blessed by the gods) might not work because, knowing a little about Hawking, an avowed atheist, I doubted he would have gone for anything having God or gods in it in English at that late date (even though he does mention God at the end of his A Brief History of Time and in a few other famous remarks). Then I posed a question, which brings us to register. Why, I asked our friend, had he avoided “glorious” in French since the adjective glorieux/se exists? It seemed a natural choice.

There are two possibilities that worry, or should, a translator when facing a supposedly natural choice. The first is one that translators and anyone learning a language are warned about or discover early on when the two languages, native and foreign to the learner, have significant overlap, which is very much the case of French and English. These are the faux amis, the false friends, of French and English, the ancien (often translated as “former”), which is not “ancient”; or the déception (disappointment) that is not a deception (even though the latter can certainly provoke the former). Molestar in Spanish could lead to a smile or international incident, depending on the circumstances, were it translated as “to molest”; it is the stuff of a classic joke (and no molestar/please do not molest obviously should have been hanging on all the doors of all those hotel rooms where Harvey W. plied his – in his eyes – formidable powers of seduction).

The second possibility, which springs from the first I think, of a translation seeming like the natural choice is that the damn word in one language has a cognate in the other, e.g., glorious and glorieux/glorieuse, which occupy more or less the same semantic field in their respective languages and, crucially to our discussion, the same register nowadays. And yet the translator avoids what argues to be the natural choice.

As it happens, my French-speaking friend never answered my question, but the German-speaker, who lives not far from Geneva and is surrounded by French, did counter that glorieux was less commonplace in French, and of a higher register, and so it would be a mistranslation to put une époque glorieuse. I now tried to disabuse my friend of what I think are his misconceptions about the English “glorious.” I told him the term is really not something you would use every day, at least not in American English and, I’m pretty sure, in the English used in the UK; I linked him to the N-gram for “glorious” in American and English use, showing its decline from the mid-19th century, and I argued that the decline in written sources probably mirrored a decline in its use in speech. Finally, I reminded him that because of his handicap, Steven Hawking’s “speech” in 2017 was much closer to writing anyway.

The German-speaker then did some research on his own and offered four or five quotations (from 2017-2018) in which “glorious” was indeed used, it seemed to him, in regular speech. And here is where my reasoning shows how one can form some idea of a word’s register in a foreign tongue. I pointed out that all his citations were instances of writing and not an attempt to reflect English as it is spoken today. The first was from a sports article and the author mentions an American football player by name along with his “glorious mustache.” Someone learning English, for example, could ponder the adjective choice here coupled with an apparently conspicuous bit of facial hair; a normally trivial thing, a feature of the athlete’s face, is being singled out, in itself probably a humorous effect. How to point up or emphasize the humor if not by modifying the noun with an adjective normally not associated with trivial things? In other words, try to reverse engineer the joke. “Glorious” is probably reserved for much more important things.

Along these lines, a lot of the priceless 16th-century comic writer François Rabelais’s material is lost on French readers today, but a great deal more was lost on me when I was immersing myself in his works back when I was first really studying French literature at the University of Geneva. Most editions provide extensive notes to help today’s readers, but when Rabelais, for instance, takes Latin nouns and verbs and comically Gallicizes them, hauls them over into French lock, stock and barrel, any educated native speaker of French is probably in on the joke right away. For me, they were just more nouns and verbs I had to look up (in the Huguet, the wonderful seven-volume dictionary of 16th-century French). The equivalent in English might be to coin, say, aleajactaesting and sictransitgloriamundize (a quidnunc already exists). And indeed, in the great comic writer P.G. Wodehouse’s priceless Aunts Aren’t Gentleman, the twit and toff Bertie Wooster, who has managed to retain Jeeves’ Latin tag rem acu tetigisti (“you have touched the thing/the matter with the needle,” in other words, you have hit the nail on the head), declares at one point, “I agreed with him that he had tetigisti-ed the rem acu.” In my case, I was being a good and sedulous student, looking the words up, but also a bit obtuse. Rabelais’s humor was practically giving me a raspberry point blank in the face.

The second citation came from the Smithsonian, more of a suit- and even suit-and-tie-kind of publication than a jeans-and-sneakers one. The third was from Seventeen, not a bastion of formal writing in the high style, yes, but the quotation sprang from a movie review of sorts, which is already pitched at a higher level probably than an interview. Importantly, the turn of phrase was “glorious summer,” while the remaining two quotations had to do with beautiful views of nature and the natural world. I explained to our man that he was probably unaware of an expression that was almost certainly hovering over or behind these three usages, “made glorious summer,” from two very famous verses by Shakespeare. I went on to maintain, without any hard data though, that any English-speaker of a certain age (hinting at “over thirty” – hedging my bets) with some university education, and any writer worth their salt really, would indeed have encountered the two verses

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York.

After my above email exchange, by the way, I tested my theory about “glorious summer,” with a fairly limited test group, i.e., just one, a friend who is also edging toward sixty and who holds a BA from an American university but not in literature – and who is not in the writing dodge. I asked him in an email if he could, off the top of his head, cite the opening verses of Richard III. He admitted he could not and that he did not in fact know the play. Then I asked him if he recognized the two verses quoted above. He knew them straight off and had read and heard them on several occasions. And he concurred that if somebody today said “We had a glorious time,” instead of “We had a great time,” the adjective would definitely stand out. The parallel to draw in this case would be with “awesome,” which was of a very high register once (it implied the kind of terror one would feel before the divine when there was no question the divine existed), but today is part of everyday English and synonymous with “nice,” “great,” “cool,” etc. A nonnative speaker of English would have no end of clues to situate the term properly.

Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play The Invention of Love is about, among other things, the great English poet and classics scholar A.E. Housman and Latin love poetry. Early in the first act, the young Housman, already a keen reader of the Latin poets, analyses a verse from Horace’s Odes (III, 24) and in doing so, gives us a tutorial on how one can sometimes work out, even in a dead language, the possible standing of a word by paying close attention to what the text itself may be telling us:

Housman: The Odes. Sorry. Odes Three, 24, “ludere doctior seu Graeco iubeas trocho” – it’s where he’s saying everything’s gone to the dogs.
Pollard: That’s it! …they’re better at playing with the Greek hoop!
Housman: Actually, “trochosis Greek, it’s the Greek word for hoop, so when Horace uses “Graecus trochus” it’s rather like saying “French chapeau.” I mean he’s laying it on thick, isn’t he?

How do you poke fun at pretentious Latinate vocabulary in Latin? You go Greek.

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