I’ve resumed reading Robert St. John’s gripping war memoir From The Land of Silent People, and I’ve been noticing usages that take me aback and remind me the book is from a different era. Not the outdated slang or the references to things that no longer exist, like the New York Herald-Tribune—those are expected—but things like this:
One car had finally gotten to Podg[o]rica, picked up the major, and come on to Cetinje, and here they were, eating a four-course dinner and drinking some of the finest champagne any of us had tasted since the second world war began.
I have rarely been so startled by lower-case letters; I don’t think I’ve ever seen the phrase as anything but “Second World War.” But this was written in 1942 and the scene is taking place in April 1941, before the US had entered the war, and at that time the war didn’t yet have a proper name—what we think of as World War One was then just the Great War or the World War, and this new one was clearly another “world war” but not yet the Second World War or World War Two.
Another example: “I lost sight of the boy bugler of Corfu when a bomb landed within a few rods of the entrance to our tunnel.” Rods? Most mildly bookish people are probably still aware of the word rod as a unit of length (and of course Simpsons fans will recall Grandpa’s “rods to the hogshead“), but I doubt many could tell you how long the unit is (five and a half yards—I looked it up), and I’m pretty sure nobody’s used it in normal prose like that, expecting the reader to know offhand what’s meant, in decades. My final example made me laugh out loud on the train:
“This thing is getting damned monotonous,” Hill grumbled.
“Yes,” I said with some sincere bitterness, “it’s like a phonograph when the needle gets stuck in a groove and keeps playing the same bars of music over and over again until you think you’ll go crazy unless someone shuts the machine off.”
We have here the rare opportunity to see a cliche in the very process of formation; the phonograph record was new enough that such a simile was still reasonably fresh and could be expanded on without risk of boring the listener. I wonder how long it took for the image to get boiled down to “broken record” or “stuck needle”? Now, of course, the cliche is becoming purely verbal, since vinyl records and needles have pretty much given way to CDs and beams of light.
My final quote has nothing to do with any of this; I was struck by it and felt like including it here. The scene is Belgrade, during the “Bloody Sunday” German bombing that destroyed much of the city; an American diplomatic limousine has just sped through a crowd, refusing to stop and take a badly wounded woman to the hospital. The angry crowd shakes its fists and shouts.
I wanted to shake my fist too, but I didn’t. If you had been there you would always remember, as I’ll always remember, how they all yelled “Amerikanski!” when they shook their fists. It wasn’t a pretty word, the way they said it. It gave me a funny feeling inside my head and inside my stomach. I was too tired to figure out how to ask these people standing in the center of the street not to blame America. To tell them that all Americans aren’t like that. I wanted to say something, anything, to make them forget what had happened. I tried to say in French to the woman with the blood on her head that I was sorry. She could tell, no doubt, from the way I talked French that I was an American, too. She told the other people standing there, and Chinigo and I had to get away fast, because all of them started shaking their fists at us and saying “Amerikanski!” between their teeth, just as they had said it to the back of the limousine.
But that was long ago, and in another country.