Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Turns of phrase that don't mean what they used to

I've been reading a lot of mysteries lately, mostly Agatha Christie, but I'm moving onto Sherlock Holmes. (Yes, I know he's not an author.) I was semi-ranting at Pete today about mystery novels and he suggested I should blog about them. And he's such a good husband, he even managed to sound like he thought other people would be interested in my thoughts and ideas rather than like he just wanted me to stop shouting about how totally unnecessary Watson is except to let the reader know that actually, Doyle doesn't agree with Holmes' misogyny/misanthropy at all. Sadly (or not), I am too tired to give full breath to my thoughts on the subject, so I thought I would post a short, related note about language in these books. Maybe I did this already? If so, sorry for the repeat. I'm too lazy to go look at my archive.

There are certain phrases that we just don't use any more. Or at least, not in the way they were originally conceived. Some are just strange, things that seem so very particular as to be too useless to remain current. Like, "She had Irish blue eyes put in with the smutty finger." Whaa?? Evidently this means that they had a smokey ring around the iris. If it were "put in with the smutty thumb" it would mean thick, dark eyelashes. Thanks, Agatha, for a phrase I will never have any reason to use because aside from being completely foreign to the modern person, it's just awkward to say. "With the smutty finger"? Why a definite article? Does it imply that God only uses one finger to play with ashes and occasionally also to put in eyeballs? Another favorite is "mare's nest," as in, "Well this is a right old mare's nest you've gotten us into." It means "complex situation," almost "imbroglio," but without the connotation of scandal.

The two phrases/words that have gotten me laughing again and again though are both redefinitions. I will give examples (though not quotes; again: lazy).
Suddenly, the Colonel left the room. Miss Marple ejaculated. "What is it?" cried her friend, startled by the uncharacteristic outburst.

"Watson, I'm sorry to knock you up so early in the morning, but it's really quite urgent."
"What? Sherlock, why are you knocking me up so early?"
"It's not me really, but a lady downstairs. And whenever a young lady knocks you up so early in the morning, you know it must be vitally important and I knew you wouldn't want to miss it."
Yes, that's right: boring old Miss Marple and her knitting are ejaculating all the time. All the time! And so are Holmes and Watson. If things get the least bit tense, Watson can't help himself. And when Holmes ejaculates, well, Watson is always startled, no matter how many times it happens.

The "knocked up" thing was quite unexpected. I mean, I'm familiar with the multiple meanings of "ejaculate," but I'd never seen "knocked up" used to mean "sought out" or "rung up" before. It kind of sheds new light on the provenance of the meaning "to be pregnant," don't you think? I mean, can you imagine fifty years from now if "to ring up" were to mean "to impregnate"? All kinds of British movies will cease to stand the test of time! Everyone will be ringing everyone up all the time and we will seem like the most lascivious of cultures!

Anyway, I thought you'd enjoy those two little artifacts.


Paul said...

Hi. I found this blog entry by searching for that same Irish eyes quote from Death in the Clouds (Death in the Air). And yeah, the various ejaculations in Christie and Doyle never cease to stop titillating me either. Glad someone else can appreciate them as well.

Beau said...

"Give me five bees for a dollar we used to say." - Abe Simpson

Lost Renee said...

I'm gonna read it and hand in my homework about solving a mystery,I hope.but I'm not sure whether my English is good enough to handle this.