Monday, October 26, 2015

Twenty English words: fall

Another fine simple English word, tracing itself through ME (Middle English) and OE (Old English) to G (German) and IE (Indo-European), -- a word which has only ever meant itself. Fallen, feallan, "to fall," fallen, "from the Indo-European base phol-, to fall." It has twenty-two definitions as a verb and twenty-one as a noun, of which "the season when leaves fall -- autumn" is the twelfth. Curiously, autumn comes from ME also, autompne, a sport thrown off like a rose branch (roses do this, I think) from OFr. (Old French) autompne, the ultimate derivation being from the Latin auctumnus, "prob. Etruscan." I like that. The Etruscans knew what we know.

A story: On the way upstairs after taking my old shoes out to the garbage yesterday, I met the neighbors on the second floor landing. There had been a party of three on the third floor balcony, I had heard the goodbyes. "Love you. Love you always. He'll help you down the stairs." Husband, wife, and woman friend who lives on the ground floor. She dresses in gauzy black with carved brown boots and silver jewelry, and wears her blonde hair up in a messy bun. 

"Do you have that expensive little blue sports car?" she asked me now.


"Nancy, this is Sue," the man said, and I squeezed in "We've met" -- we had, in the laundry room months before, and subsequently when she has held the door for me occasionally -- while Sue kept talking.

"I was accosted in the parking lot yesterday. It was yesterday morning. A man pulled up next to me as I was parking my car, and he said, 'Hello?'

"Really?" I was distracted by wanting to get home and by her plunging black gauze neckline and the row of little crucifixes dangling off the black lace ribbon around her throat. And the gray roots.

"And then I drove to the Seven Eleven and he followed me. And he got out of his car and he said, 'Did you not hear me say "hello"?' "

"One knee up," the neighbor man said, and Sue said, "What?"

He raised his knee, as if to show how to injure a man. "Or do you have a whistle?"


"Do you?" He looked at me.

"I'm afraid not." By this time I had gone halfway up the next flight of steps. "A whistle," he went on, "a phone call. Anything. If you need anything, just call."

"And I thought, you effer -- I was thinking of all the profanity I could -- "

"Be safe. Be safe, be safe, be safe."

"And then I drove home, and I looked in my rearview mirror and he wasn't following me." 

"Be safe."

"Okay." I reached the landing and looked back as they walked on down the steps, her hand on his arm. "He's like my brother," Sue was saying.

A comment: Pay attention to the wisdom of old ladies. It may be deep in human nature to do so, though sometimes we resent that they know more, for no apparent reason, than we do. Consider how often blunt old ladies are the most interesting and refreshing characters in fiction and film. Miss Marple. Lady Grantham. Think of a few of your own.

Interesting, refreshing, but sometimes disheartening, too. When I was thirteen I sneered privately at my grandmother when she pronounced, "Morals are morals." So hidebound and judgmental, I thought. Of course it turns out she was right. Eight years ago, for her part my mother knew that Barack Obama would be elected president, and said so long before pundits had even begun to hash through all the political possibilities. "I think there's no question," she said. With saddened frustration.

Now she says Hillary Clinton will be the next president. "I think it's inevitable. There is no one else." I can't decide whether she's probably right given her track record and her participation in the wisdom of old ladies, or whether she is -- so far -- only demonstrating what an old-fashioned voter with no computer and no access to the new media still "knows." "Who do the Republicans have?" she asks. "There's no one." In fact there are quite a few, but local television news and the Chicago Tribune apparently don't say much about them. As far as Benghazi is concerned, "Why do they keep going after Hillary about this Benghazi?" she asks. "Why don't they go after her about something else?"

Such as? Is there a choice among Hillary scandals? As it happens, yes. However, my mother has also severed all contact with the Tribune, because she was outraged by the paper's new method of getting subscribers, so if They do go after Her for something else, she may not know much about it. The Tribune launched a customer subscription campaign by which, if you agreed to take delivery of eight weeks of the Sunday paper for free, you would then be billed for continued delivery of the paper beginning with the ninth week. Unless you troubled to call them and opt out. "That's terrible!" she said. "I have to call them to cancel?!"

"I've heard of that," I began to say. "It's the new thing. There's a word for it ...."


"No, there's a word for when you have to opt out of things. Like, you're already an organ donor through having a driver's license, unless you opt out. Obama wants this so the government has more control of everything, figuring people are not going to bother insisting they not do something. I forget what it's called. It's psychological. Prompting ... trending. Nudging! That's it. Nudging."

"It's terrible. I got my book and a chair, and I called the Tribune because I was determined to cancel this thing. I knew it would take forever. And do you know how long I was on the phone?"

"How long?"

"Twenty-five minutes. On hold. I read an entire chapter of my book. Finally I got 'Henry' -- he was probably Mohammed -- and I said to him to cancel that paper. I will never look at the Tribune again. And he started to tell me maybe I should continue to get it and what a great deal it was, and I said, 'I do not want this and I have been on hold for twenty five minutes waiting to speak to someone because I had to call you to not get this paper. I do not want it.' So then he began to back down." 

We talked about more than that, of course. We talked about up and coming generations too loaded with student debt to buy homes or raise families, and about granddaughters in their thirties, unmarried, who are beginning to think they might want a baby after all. We talked about the days when she and her teenaged girlfriends could walk home from the movies in downtown Chicago, at night, "and not think anything of it. I don't know if we were naive or if things were just different. But," a sharp, determined eye here -- "I think they were different."

Pay attention to old ladies. Though perhaps not always fair with Henry, they hail meaningfully, by definition, from an era before "nudging."   

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