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 Not the outdated slang or the references to things that no longer exist, like the New York Herald-Tribune—those are expected—but things like this: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.


  1. This reminds me of a standardized language assessment I use with ESL students who are all young children. There are several pictures that the children are supposed to identify to test their level of English proficiency. The test show pictures of both a record player (my father calls it a phonograph) and a typewriter. None of the children, fluent in English or not, can identify these objects which are no longer part of their technologically advanced world.

  2. Regarding your last quote: interesting , would these people shout if the plates on the limousine were Swiss?
    I take it as it is, namely – result of the cowardly pinky propaganda, in this case and in the world around us today. Interesting (psychologically, at least) to analyze some people’s state of mind: why they didn’t put blame where it belonged in the first place, namely – on Germans bombing the city? Why right after the 9/11 horror in the ‘black” New Yorker issue Susan Sontag didn’t put finger where it belonged and started to whine: “Oh, why do they hate us? Please don’t blame all Americans”…

  3. Heh, I think I know the test you’re refering to — the company I work for handles support & training for it. Rest assured, the typewriter item is being removed in the 2004 version (finally).
    As for turntables, many are surprised to learn that they are still alive and well. I regularly buy brand new LPs — they are still being pressed, and show no signs of going away. The record industry would like you to forget that you ‘had’ to throw away all your records when tapes came out, and all your tapes when CDs came out — thus lining their pockets to replace perfectly good recordings. But if they had stayed with records they might not be having to deal with those hooligans, the file traders.

  4. I think the Yugoslavs probably managed to blame both the Germans who bombed the city and the Americans who refused to help. We humans usually have plenty of blame to go around.

  5. “[I]t’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.”
    Brilliant! I love it… But to echo worm eater’s comments, I think the “skipping record” has a long ways to go before it becomes a purely verbal cliche like “putting the cart before the horse” or “all wound up.” In fact, this week I bought my first new vinyl record since I was six years old. (Actually, I suppose it’s the first vinyl record I’ve ever bought myself. Boy George and the Culture Club “Colour by Numbers” was a gift, I believe…)

  6. Michael Farris says

    As long as we’re getting all political, I’m finding a presumption I’ve long had about my fellow US citizens was maybe wrong.
    I’d always assumed the CW was right: Americans want to be liked.
    I’m rapidly modifying that to: Americans enjoy the idea that they’re disliked. This is perhaps because of the many pleasant possibilities it raises for feelings of righteous indignation …
    It may be that both are right, Americans would like to be liked, but are willing to settle for dislike and the attendant(sp?) opportunities for indignation at foreign ingrates.
    just a thought ….

  7. Linked to you, if that’s alright. =)

  8. In a situation where foreigners are thought to be the cause of problems, I find it quite unsursprising that all foreigners are blamed.

  9. Mike Farris, may I suggest another thought for your contemplation?
    Do you recall Polish society ever beating their heads and screeming “Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”, admitting their (not-imagined, but quite real) guilts? I don’t, not on a scale it’s happening in liberal circles here, in US – and American “guilts” are mostly pure speculation, empty air.
    I think it’s about time somebody have some guts and stop being the punching bag.

  10. worm eater, JKelly: I’m aware that vinyl records are still being made and that people are still buying them. I trust you are aware that this is pretty much the definition of “minority taste” and that the vast majority of the users of the English language will remain in blissful ignorance of the circumstance described in the quoted paragraph until the end of time. There are still people who have horses and buggies; this doesn’t mean that the term “buggy whip” calls up an image in the average English speaker. The vinyl record has had its day.

  11. With all due respect, the Poles have not been in a position to blame themselves for harming non-Poles in the last several centuries. No one is asking for mea culpas from the Poles. (Well, maybe Polish Jews, I don’t know — as I understand, the Nazis killed Poles almost as enthusiastically as they killed Jews).
    The self-pity that comes out of a lot of Americans these days reminds me of the self-pity that has come out of a lot of countries in the past, preparatory to attacking their evil enemies. Anyone who thinks that the US is or has been a punching bag should look at Central America ca. 1980.
    I know that LH likes to keep the site apolitical, so perhaps we should let this all drop.

  12. CD? What’s a CD?

  13. Heh.
    (I don’t mind the occasional political exchange, so long as it’s reasonably short and civil — I think of it as a dash of cayenne pepper in the mix — but let’s not let it overwhelm the stew.)

  14. No, John, no one is asking for mea culpa from the Poles, there are no Polish Jews left alive to ask. As Dear Leader used to say – “No person, no problem”. It’s only entire Jewish population of the whole country, who was betrayed by their spouses, neighbours and business affiliates.
    And two-three stage perfomances like preservation of Majdanek will not do the trick.
    Somehow Denmark, f.ex. protected their Jewish citizens and never made a big deal out of it.
    Show me the country where Americans whiped out millions of people based on their religion or nationality and than talk about collective guilt or, alternatively, self-pity.
    Shame on you.

  15. Any native americans around to comment on that?

  16. Good point. Tatyana, what about the wiping out of most of the Native American population? Not done as deliberately and efficiently as twentieth-century mass ethnic murders, but still (I would think) reason enough for guilt. But I don’t think it’s necessary to perpetrate a Holocaust in order to feel guilty; isn’t it enough that the US has propped up very nasty governments and aided and abetted their nastiness by providing weapons and training? I think we can agree that the US is not as bad as Hitlerite Germany or Stalinist Russia without concluding it has nothing to feel bad about. (Liberal whininess and self-flagellation can indeed be annoying, but that’s a separate issue.)

  17. Michael Farris says

    Just a few points and I’ll shut up.
    It was a little easier for Denmark to protect it’s Jewish citizens because non-Jewish Danes were not a Nazi target themselves, every Pole was a Nazi target sooner or later (except for the children deemed aryan enough to kidnap and send to the Fatherland). The record of non-Jewish Poles runs the gamut from risking their lives to try to save Jewish people to cooperating with the Nazis.
    There are still Jewish Poles, not many but they exist.
    There have been public statements of reconciliation by Polsih government officials and those of some other countries (I remember reading about meetings with Germans and Czechs, there may have been others). Basically both sides ask for forgiveness for any wrongs they’ve done the other side and forgive the wrongs done them. No mention is made about which side has more to forgive and more to be forgiven for.
    The anger of the people in the sample quoted is perfectly reasonable. The Germans doing the bombing were unreachable (I’m sure they were blamed plenty). The Americans who chose not to help were right there on the spot (or were before they sped away).
    Native Americans – no need to say more.
    The comments I made are the result of months of reading about the dastardly, ungrateful French, Germans etc. It took me a while, but it slowly dawned on me that many of the writers were deriving a great deal of pleasure from their self-righteous indignation. It’s a very seductive feeling (I’m human and I’ve indulged it myself). I’m just surpised at myself I didn’t notice that sooner.
    I don’t understand those who revel in the US as the only global superpower and who want it to be both respected (feared?) and liked. Those feelings usually don’t go together.
    Not to take up any more space here, if anyone really wants to hash things out, please feel free to email me personally (nb there are no double letters in my real email address).

  18. Mike, and what exactly the proportion of those hiding the Jews and those repoting them to [unbelievable, but documented fact]often hesitating to execute Germans? And how many Jews exactly living in Poland today? I know of numerous examples of Jewish families immigrating to Germany (exactly because of national awareness of the past crimes and policy to support immigration) and none of Jews coming back to Poland en masse. Declarations from politicians can’t be counted as proof of national repentance.
    My point that there are numerous countries with real unrepented guilt instead of imaginary one stands (and I sited Poland as a familiar example for you, not because it’s one and only example)
    About Native Americans: strange, a while back when I doubted that Spanish is the native language of North America, nobody recalled Native Americans… I guess this example comes handy – when it comes handy. Besides, the logic about collective guilt and Native Americans as an argument in the context of the War on Terror could be valid only in the case if instead of Saudis there were Native Americans in the pilot seats of those planes.
    The Americans who chose not to help Yugoslavs were diplomats on official business in a foreign country at the time when their country was neutral, or did I misunderstood something? So I would think did diplomats of all other neutral countries, and nobody screemed “Bloody Swiss” to their back. It’s unfortunate but necessary for diplomatic relations convention of uninvolvement.
    Same appalling thing happened many times before, f.ex. when Greek and Armenian population of Smyrna was eradicated by Turks on October 1, 1922( American Consul at the time gave these figures: out of 400,000 Ottoman Christians of Smyrna 190,000 were unaccounted after pogroms anf fire) and American, French and British ships were not allowed to take on board swimmers who tried to escape.
    Turks still do not admit that it indeed happened. But nobody in his right mind would blame Americans , French or British for this massacre.
    My mail address (which is the same as my name here and how I always sign everything I write) could be found here, for anybody wishing to continue the dicussion – which, btw, I didn’t start.
    Oh, and sorry for possible spelling/grammar mistakes; I am not a linguist.

  19. So I would think did diplomats of all other neutral countries, and nobody screemed “Bloody Swiss” to their back.
    What makes you say that? Under similar circumstances, I’m sure they would have. It’s certainly not the case that Americans were generally disliked in Yugoslavia at the time; quite the opposite, as St. John makes clear. But incidents like that get people upset.

  20. “I think we can agree that the US isn’t as bad as Hilterite Germany and Stalinist Russia.” Well, duh!!!! As for the Jews immigrating to Germany, I am aware of Russian-speaking Jews from the former USSR doing this because Germany pays them some type of war reparations. When I was in Riga, Latvia, I spoke to an elderly woman whose son was murdered by local Nazi-loving fascists during World War II. Five years ago, she was reluctantly going to Germany as the standard of living there was better than in post-Soviet Latvia, especially for a non-Latvian Russian speaker. It was humiliating for her. Yes, Tatiana (I prefer this spelling), no one mentions what the Spanish, Portuguese and French colonialists did to the indigenous populations in their former new world colonies. It’s always the US’ fault. And what guilt should I or others like me have for policies that ocurred centuries before my grandparents came to these shores? I guess I’m hanging around too many immigrants to the States. The languages I speak for which my studies in linguistics facilitated their acquisition, I use with real people, immigrant native speakers. They love the US. Sorry for the venting…

  21. I love the US too, and I’m well aware of why immigrants feel as strongly as they do about it; immigrants from formerly Communist countries, in particular, are very prickly about any slights to its good name. But the US, for all its ideals and frequent good intentions, has done some pretty rotten things, even more recently than “centuries before my grandparents came to these shores,” and I don’t see the value in covering them up or pretending they don’t happen. Power corrupts, especially if it’s not called to account.

  22. The Cherokee Trail of Tears immediately springs to mind…
    As for “phonograph” – when I was in grade six I had to take a test to see if I could skip to grade seven (I failed grade one because I was one of those Eastern European refugees & I was older than everyone else). One of the questions on the test was a “What’s this?” question with a picture of a saxophone.
    (The other questions that I remember were 56+8=? and “Who discovered America?”)

  23. Back from the political and on to a linguistics discussion:
    Why would the crowd shout “amerikanski”. That is an adjective looking for a noun. Amerikanski means “Americab”, as in “American car”.
    They probably shouted “Amerikanci” (meaning “Americans”) and were misheard by the author???

  24. Sorry for the typo – that sentence should have read
    Amerikanski means “American”, as in “American car”.
    The modern adjective is americki, rather than amerikanski. (There should be a hachek on the C in “americki”).

  25. You’re right, of course; St. John, excellent reporter though he was, had the typical American’s problem with foreign tongues, and very often gets foreign words and place names wrong.

  26. LH… according to my fiance’s sister’s ex-fiance (English does not have a word for this relationship), who is a professional hip-hop/trance club DJ… it is virtually impossible for him to do his job without phonograph records. He mixes as a performance art; every performance is unique. He pre-records only sound samples.
    He was really surprised to hear that you characterized phonographs (“turntables” now) and records (“vinyl” to the trade) as obsolete. He says all his fellow DJs would probably be equally surprised.

  27. languagehat,
    I would disagree about your comment on the deliberateness of wiping out the Native Americans. When discussing about smallpox as a bioweapon, one of the first incidents to come up was how Native Americans were given blankets contaminated with smallpox.
    It was not only deliberate, it was also frightening efficient, as Native Americans had no immunity to the disease.
    As far as the rest, I especially like the phonograph bit. Last week I was lamenting the fact that I don’t have a phonograph, because I wanted to play an album that I now have only on vinyl (the cassette became unplayable years ago, but I never got around to converting it to CD).

  28. speedwell: Once again, I am aware that phonographs and vinyl records are still in use. I am even aware that DJ’s use them routinely. But I’m talking about the vast majority of the English-speaking public, which I think you will agree does not consist of DJ’s (who, of course, will continue to appreciate the nuances of the simile).

  29. As soon as I figure out what that “akakakakakakakakak” sound of a malfunctioning CD reminds me of, I hope to construct an analogy of such startling clarity that it inevitably progresses to global cliche. Something like, “Man, you sound like a scratched CD-R in a 1987 CD player,” only pithier.

  30. Michelle’s statement above regarding deliberate and efficient wiping out of American Indians by US Government by using smallpox as bioweapon got me thinking if that is a proven fact.
    Not knowing American History to the extent of forming an opinion on the topic, I asked around.
    One friend, a historian, replied:”Well yes and no- Indeed Indians were given blankets and many other items that were contaminated (just being around “us” was often enough to “catch” many types of bugs)-As the Native Americans had never been exposed to this disease(or dozens of others) many tribes were decimated- Whether it was done intentionally is a question as “we” did not fully understand how it was transmitted or where it came from- In my humble opinion things like this are in many ways *revisionist history* and therefore very suspect”
    Another friend went as far as did my research for me [tahnks, Ray!] and sent me this link.
    An excerpt:
    …There is little doubt that unscrupulous land-grabbers and some military leaders used any means available to get rid of the American Indians. Government treaties, bureaucratic bungling, the Washita, Sand Creek, and Bear River massacres as well as others created the darkest chapters in this country’s history. However, this does not mean that the United States Government used the smallpox virus to conduct a systematic and planned extermination of the American Indians…
    My conclusion so far: since learned sources differ in their opinions on the subject, I wouldn call this a fact so categorically.

  31. Tatyana: Thanks for the research; I’ve always wondered about that myself, and hadn’t come to a conclusion.

  32. Michael Farris says

    I’ve generally assumed that the contaminated blankets were a case of ignorance rather than malice … which brings up the interesting question, would they have done it if they knew what they were doing?

  33. Everything that I have read with regards to bioterrorism has stated that giving the Native Americans smallpox was a deliberate act of bioterrorism (our word now, not their word then).
    I don’t have immediate access to my books, but I do have this quote from the BBC:
    “At the time of the Pontiac rebellion in 1763, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in North America, wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet: ‘Could it not be contrived to send smallpox among these disaffected tribes of Indians? We must use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.’ The colonel replied: ‘I will try to inoculate the [Native American tribe] with some blankets that may fall in their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.’ Smallpox decimated the Native Americans, who had never been exposed to the disease before and had no immunity.”
    BBC Smallpox page
    It is also discussed in an interesting page on the history of smallpox from a DHHS (US Department of Health and Human Services) site.
    As the virus existed possibly as far back as 1000 BCE, and as the first attempts at vaccination (called variolation ) were in the 10th century, to claim that the colonists didn’t understand the disease and didn’t know what they were doing… I just find it unlikely.

  34. In the link my friend provided (see my comment above) same letter is quoted in the subarticle titled “Indian Genocide” (right after “Indian Vaccination” and the next paragraph after it reads:
    …There is nothing showing Bouquet took action, but there is evidence that a Captain Ecuyer did…”Out of our regard for them (two Indian chiefs) we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect ( William Trent ).”
    The Amherst letter has been used to support the proposition of germ warfare or genocide against native populations. Amherst may have discussed it in correspondence with Bouquet, but there is no evidence that Colonel Bouquet carried it out. As he mentioned in his reply, Bouquet was afraid of what it would do to his own men and with good reason…this was twenty-three years before Jenner’s work on vaccination, and one hundred years before Pasteur advanced his germ theory…the only thing known about smallpox in 1763 was…the age, color of skin, social status meant nothing to the smallpox virus; an infected person died or, if lucky enough to survive, was disfigured for life. No matter how bad Amherst may have wanted to be rid of the Indians, it seems doubtful that he would unleash a disease that had already killed millions of his own countrymen…
    There is impressive list of references at the end of this article (which doesn’t include BBC), which made me to come to the conclusion I wrote above.

  35. Sha!!! no more politics!!
    back to phonographs. i think the charm of the original explanation lies in the fact that it in some way imitates the stuck phonograph. i can just hear the character drawl it – this long, annyoing, monotonous sentence about length, annoyance, and monotony.

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