Still reading Mason & Dixon, and I’ve run hard aground on the following passage:

Summer takes hold, manifold sweet odors of the Fields, and presently the Forest, become routine, and one night the Surveyors sit in their Tent, in the Dark, and watch Fire-flies, millions of them blinking ev’rywhere,—Dixon engineering plans for lighting the Camp-site with them[…] Jeremiah will lead the Fire-flies to stream continuously through the Tent in a narrow band, here and there to gather in glass Globes, concentrating their light to the Yellow of a new-risen Moon.
“And when we move to where there are none of these tiny Linkmen?”
“We take ’em with huz…? Lifetime Employment!”
“But how long do they live?”
“Ensign Cheer.”

I’ve racked my brains but can come up with no interpretation of “Ensign Cheer” that makes sense. Can anyone come up with an idea? Perhaps a translated version might shed some light?
Update. David A. Heal explains it perfectly in the comments: it’s not a direct answer to the question, it’s a commentary on the question: “My, what a cheerful fellow!” Once again, the LH readership comes through.

Incidentally, I regret to report that the doubtless illegal German site that reproduced the entire text of the novel has been taken down, as was inevitable, so it looks like I’ll have to copy out my quotations by hand from now on.


  1. That’s a tough one. I notice the index available at Thomaspynchon.com is no help, and neither is google. Unless a translator has talked to Pynchon (and it’s my understanding that all too often translators do not correspond with the authors) directly it’s very likely that the translator would miss this as well. In any case I looked for a Russian translation but there doesn not seem to be one.

  2. Yeah, I always try Google and the reference index first; sadly, the latter is rarely of much use. They annotate the obvious references and don’t seem to have put much effort into figuring out the hard stuff.

  3. Rick Grimm says

    I’m not entirely sure if this helps, but this is what I found on Google for ‘ensign’:

  4. a person who holds a commissioned rank in the United States Navy or the United States Coast Guard; below lieutenant junior grade
  5. national flag: an emblem flown as a symbol of nationality
  6. colors flown by a ship to show its nationality
  7. The above results were generated following a search using Google’s ‘define’ feature. Do this in the search bar… ‘define:ensign’.

  • audiofage says

    I’m betting that this is rhyming slang. Usually it’s a phrase of the same or nearly the same syllables, so it could be something like “within a year” or something to that effect.

  • The US navy ensign rank was not established until 1862. Did the British navy or army have an ensign rank at this time? Limited lunchtime Googling says no, that ensign in the British navy referred only to the flag.
    Ditto audiofage: my guess is some kind of pun or corruption: ensign/ancient cheer/year come to mind but don’t seem to add meaning.

  • audiofage says

    The difficulty in deciphering rhyming “slang” is that sometimes it’s not actually a widely-used slang term like “alligator” (in Cockney, they say just that, the “see you later” is the whole joke of it). It’s more like a referential joking style that can be used on the spot. So in this case, perhaps the passages before AND after are helpful – it was probably built on what was said before and it could be that someone extended the joke later on with another comment. And it’s not just the Cockneys who do this – it’s quite common in Liverpudlian and Scots as well (as far as I’ve ever heard it).

  • Martin M. says

    Well, I’ll tell you this much: adult fireflies don’t live anywhere near a year. Some species don’t even eat once they reach adulthood, apparently. So if it’s a rhyme, it’s not a very accurate one.

  • I don’t find the rhyming slang explanation that compelling – Mason & Dixon were not of the time or class that would have used Cockney slang. And it’s not a very precise rhyme, not on the level of “cream crackered – knackered” or “Trouble and Strife – wife” Could an “Ensign Cheer” be something of very short duration (since ensigns have little to cheer about)? Or could it be a euphemism? i.e. the ensign cheer is “fuck-all” or something along those lines.

  • David A. Heal says

    Seems to me to be just another one of Mason’s sarcastic needlings of Dixon’s tendency to rain on parades/be pessimistic, no? See later on, ch. 66, p.644: “Ensign Enthusiasm here.”

  • audiofage says

    Well, I don’t maintain that it’s anything more than a long shot. But rhyming games don’t have to be precise – sometimes people get more of a kick out of how far you go to make a joke. Also, I doubt that it matters much in a joke exactly how long a firefly lives. To a human, a year is a short lifespan – but I’m not arguing that the rhyme is actually on “year”; I’m just saying you need to be creative about it. The joke, if there is one, is likely that the span is short, relatively.
    Lastly, anyone who’s liable to say “’em” and “huz” for “them” and “us” aren’t exactly worried about precision. And like I said, Cockney slang is just one example of this type of speech pattern (and I’m actually arguing that you need to look at the whole dialogue here). It’s quite widespread among English speakers in Britain, which, by the way, the speakers in this instance are not, linguistically, distant from at all. I would think that rhyming joke patterns would still be around at that point (in the text) as well, even though they are not common in the US today.

  • audiofage says

    And for all that, I’d probably go with David’s explanation first!

  • Yeah, David nailed it. It’s perfectly consistent with similar responses throughout the book; I was simply on the wrong mental track, expecting it to be a direct answer to the question. Thanks!

  • Another resource that may be useful to you in your perusal, is the archived Mason & Dixon Mass Discussion, which took place on the pynchon-l in 1997-8, starting in June of 97: http://www.waste.org/mail/?list=pynchon-l&month=9706
    Look for posts whose subject line begins MDMD(n) where n is the discussion section — each section covers approximately 30 pages or 3 chapters and lasts a fortnight. The MDMD charter, as posted by Andrew Dinn, is here: http://www.waste.org/mail/?list=pynchon-l&month=9705&msg=15234&sort=date

  • Many thanks!

  • Sure — dunno why I did not think of it til now. If memory serves the MDMD unraveled a bit toward spring of 98 (hmm, what author’s novels tend to unravel a bit toward the end?) but the first several months are tight and quite informative.

  • Ensign was the lowest subaltern rank in the British Army until it was replaced in the mid-19th century by the rank of Second Lieutenant. I’m not sure how early it was, but Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, had a commission as an ensign (in the 73rd Regiment of Foot) purchased for him by his parents in 1787. (I’d always heard that this army rank was called ensign because they carried an ensign.)

  • You heard right, and it goes back well before Wellesley; here’s the relevant part of the OED definition:
    7. The soldier who carries the ensign; a standard-bearer. See ANCIENT n.2 Formerly commissioned officers of the lowest grade in the infantry bore this title, which has been replaced by that of sub-lieutenant.
    1513-75 Diurn. Occurr. (1833) 225 Alexander Bog ansenyie to capitane Daniel Meluile with the said enseynie, and lxx suddartis. 1579 DIGGES Stratiot. 89 Let the Ensigne be a man of good accompte. 1677 W. HUBBARD Narrative 19 Ensign Savage, that young Martial Spark. 1682 BUNYAN Holy War 51 His Ensign was Mr. Thunder. 1756-7 tr. Keysler’s Trav. (1760) I. 309 The sons of many of the noblest and wealthiest families are ensigns and lieutenants. 1846 MCCULLOCH Acc. Brit. Empire (1854) II. 559 The mortality of captains from battle is double that of ensigns.
    I also learned from the OED entry that the word is pronounced EN-sine (the last syllable exactly like the word “sign”) in the UK; in the US it’s EN-sin (with reduced vowel in the final syllable). This is the kind of trans-Atlantic difference you don’t notice, because the spelling is the same and the word doesn’t come up in speech very often.
    (Note that Hubbard’s “Ensign Savage” is remarkably reminiscent of Pynchon’s “Ensign Cheer.”)

  • “We take ’em with huz…? Lifetime Employment!”
    “But how long do they live?”
    “Ensign Cheer.”
    Looking at the question from the situation of a hearing-challenged individual who spends much time trying to make sense out of odd sequences of sound, and from the context of “Lifetime Employment” and the question “How long?”, it seems likely that the “Cheer” is a reduction of the words “each year”, and that the “Ens” of “Ensign” is possibly the verb “ends”, but no good fit comes to mind for the second syllable.
    Cheers! HMM

  • An en-sine is what a British en-sin would have carried.
    I’ve also seen other references to Ancient, which may be false etymology. In the British Army the ‘rag-carrier’ was a youth, supported by two Colour Sergeants.
    On the other hand the ranks of Faenrich (G) Vaandrig (Du) represented a crossover – either a senior NCO or a pimply youth.
    Let’s run it up the flagstaff and see who salutes (or cheers)!

  • Regarding the “Ensign Savage” similarity — Hubbard’s Narrative is a history of King Philip’s War, so quite likely a reference used by Pynchon. John Pynchon of Hampshire County, MA, no doubt a Pynchon ancestor or relative, was a major in that war. (http://www.usgennet.org/usa/topic/newengland/philip/21-end/appendixpt6.html) (Also a Captain John Pynchon — his son according to a Pynchon genealogical site). Incidentally these Pynchon progenitors translate into Slothrop’s Springfield, Mass. ancestors in Gravity’s Rainbow.
    Also note (from the hyperarts Pynchon site), another instance of Pynchon’s Ensigns: the GR character Ensign Morituri:
    “Morituri, Ensign
    462; [Latin: “We who are about to die” – salutation of the gladiators to the Roman Emperor: “morituri te salutamos” = “we who are about to die salute you”]; “of the Japanese Imperial Navy” “ex-liaison man from Berlin who didn’t quite get out by way of Russia”; was in kamikaze training; 467; his story, 474; irony of radium/Hiroshima, 479-80; 672; 706″

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