Run And Find Out

I bet it will be no surprise to anyone reading this that Rudyard Kipling wrote some of my favorite stories. The Mowgli stories from The Jungle Books are obvious choices – although, actually I love the short stories, too. I also adore Kim. Puck of Pook’s Hill is a strange and amazing story.

One Kipling story that particularly speaks to me is “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the tale of a mongoose who, like all of his clan, “is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity.” The motto of the mongoose family is “Run and find out.”

In many ways, that’s my motto, too.

Long ago, my sister and I resolved that it wasn’t worth arguing about anything that could be looked up. We didn’t have the Internet then, but we did have dictionaries and encyclopedias.

These worked well to resolve most questions. That didn’t mean we didn’t argue – I mean, we were sisters within two years of each other in age – but we rapidly learned the difference between fact, opinion, and that very shaky quality: “belief.”

One of the best things about “run and find out” is when you learn you’re wrong. Whole horizons open up then. Here’s a neat example that happened just recently. Jim tends to use the word “reticent” where I would use “reluctant.”

I questioned him about this, pointing out that the dictionary definition of “reticent” was “characteristically silent in temperament; restrained or reserved in style.” By contrast, “reluctant” meant “unwilling; averse; marked by unwillingness.” This latter definition, based on context, was clearly what he intended.

Jim agreed that the dictionary and I were right. He’s very patient with me.

Then, just a few days later, my friend Debbie came by for tea and chat. (Well, tea for her, coffee for me). Debbie is quite bright and well-read, so when I heard her using “reticent” in place of “reluctant” I was fascinated.

I knew I was right about the definitions of these words. The dictionary confirmed that my understanding of them was correct. Yet, clearly I was missing something.

As I mused over what Jim and Debbie might have in common, revelation hit. Jim grew up in Michigan. Debbie grew up not that far away in Ohio. Clearly, what we had here was a regionalism, where “reticent” had acquired the added meaning of “reluctant.”

I was very excited – not because I was right, but because I had discovered that there was more to the picture than a simple dictionary definition. One of these days, maybe someone will tell me how this added definition evolved. Even if I never learn, my ears are now opened.

Curiosity drives me, which is one reason I ask so many questions in these wanderings. I’m guessing curiosity is a driving force for a lot of SF/F readers… Or maybe not. Maybe now that the genre has moved from fringes to the mainstream, that curiosity has vanished.

What do you think?

P.S. On a completely unrelated note… Last week, author Diana Wynne Jones died. I wrote about her works this time last year. You can read what I said by going to April 7, 2010.

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14 Responses to “Run And Find Out”

  1. Alan Robson Says:

    Oh gosh — I can feel buttons being pushed all over me!

    Kipling; I absolutely adore Kipling. He’s one of my favourite writers. My particular loves are the Just So Stories but I also have a very soft spot for Stalky And Co.. And who doesn’t love The Jungle Book?

    But when you talk about regionalism in language, I know exactly what you mean. I was born and brought up in Yorkshire, in the North of England. As a child, I was very aware of the fact that I had two languages. My parents insisted that I speak “proper” English in the house. But when I was out with my friends in the village, I spoke the same Yorkshire dialect that they spoke. It was protective colouration really — if I’d spoken “proper” English with my friends I’d have stood out too much, like a canary in a flock of sparrows. And like that canary I’d have been mocked, and possibly beaten up.

    The Yorkshire dialect is much more than just an accent. It is a little language in its own right with its own vocabulary and grammar. It’s close to English, but nevertheless it is distincly different.

    “When ah were nobbut a lad, ah’d oft go laikin’ taws on’t cause’ay.”

    I bet most of you did as well.

    What I actually said there was (literally, rather than idiomatically): “When I was nothing but a child I would often go playing marbles on the footpath.”

    (Quick English/American translation for those who need it — an English footpath is an American sidewalk).

    Probably the oddest word there is “laikin'”. It’s a verb. To laik means to play. See? The dialect has its own vocabulary. The other words in the sentence are close enough to English that you can probably work them out for yourselves now that you know the meaning of the sentence. But without help, “laikin'” would almost certainly continue to puzzle you…

    Anyway, in the Yorkshire dialect, the word “until” doesn’t exist. And the word “while” is used to mean “until”.

    If Cinderella had been born in Yorkshire, she would have asked her fairy godmother for permission to go to the ball.

    “Eeeeh, granny. Can ah go t’ball?”

    And her fairy godmother would have given permission, but she would have warned Cinderella that she could only stay until midnight. Because at midnight, of course, all the spells wore off, the coach turned back into a pumpkin, and the horses turned back into white mice. Cinderella can only stay until midnight.

    “Aye lass. Tha can go t’ball. But tha can only stay while midnight.”

    While. Not until. Remember, the word “until” doesn’t exist. We use “while” instead.

    Despite the fact that my parents forced me to speak proper English at home, and despite the fact that I haven’t lived in Yorkshire for more than 40 years, I still can’t say or use the word “until”. Unless I try really, really hard, and think very carefully indeed about my sentence structure, I still very frequently say “while” when I mean “until”. I simply can’t help myself.

    There’s regionalism for you!

    -Alan

    • Ann M Nalley Says:

      I spent my senior year at the University of Lancaster in the Lake District, and one of my very closest friends was a Yorkshire “lad” names Steve. One weekend, a bunch of us went to Steve’s house just to get away from University, and he took me to the local fish and chip shop (the chippy.) I was a bit of a novelty, being a Yank, and the very nice woman behind the counter talked to me… except that I couldn’t understand ANYTHING she said. What a shock to me, given the fact that she was “technically” speaking a language I knew! When I asked Steve about it later outside, he said that she was teasing me about a ring I had on my finger which fit right above the knuckle. She had told me ~ and Steve, I guess she assumed we were dating ~ that he could at least be decent enough to get me a ring that fit…. And “the Yank” didn’t get a word of it. Later that weekend, Steve’s mother offered to wash my “smalls.” I politely declined, and then asked Steve later what she meant. “Smalls” meant my underclothing… what a delicate, discreet word! And lovely, lovely people. One of the best years of my life.

      • Alan Robson Says:

        It is quite possible for two English people to be haveing a conversation where both of them will swear they are speaking English, but neither of them will understand a word the other is saying! Perhaps the most extreme example would be a scouser (someone from Liverpool) talking to a geordie (someone from Newcastle on Tyne). Both accents/dialects are so extreme that they are almost mutually incomprehensible!

        I’m glad you enjoyed your time in the Lake District — it’s quite beautiful there.

    • CBI Says:

      My wife is from New York; my family home is Texas (although I also spent many years in Michigan).

      When she first brought me home to meet her parents, I was waiting in the kitchen while she went upstairs to get some stuff. Her younger sister (perhaps ~23 years of age) came in, sat down across from me, and commenced a conversation. Her Bronx accent was something beyond my ken. I managed to play off body language, nod, and make appropriate responses, because when she left and wen upstairs and talked with my then-new-girlfriend, she mentioned how nice her new boyfriend was. “He talked nicely with me”, she said.

      I never understood a bit of what she was saying, beyond the introductory “hi”.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Don’t know if you can get this on your local public radio, but there’s a 1 hour program called “A Way With Words” (http://www.waywordradio.org/listen/) that talks about regionalisms and similar things every week. It’s a lot of fun to listen to.

  3. Debbie Says:

    That whole conversation was an eye opening experience for me. I’ve started to use the word reticent since then, and had to stop and change it to reluctant! Of course the most dramatic regionalism I’ve experienced is the word ‘mango’. Where I grew up in Ohio, a mango is a green pepper. All the pizza places have mango on their menus. I didn’t realize mango was a fruit until I moved to California.

    I totally love the fact that we continue to learn no matter what age we are. I’ve always felt that a writer’s biggest obstacle were the assumptions said writer made without even realizing it. The same could be said about the use of words. I use the dictionary a lot, even to look up words I believe I know the meaning of. Like discipline. Ask 5 people what that word means and you’ll get 5 different answers. Amazing.

  4. Paul Says:

    You know, it’s not just regionalism that makes for unique expressions. I still repeat silly expressions that I heard aunts, uncles or friends use back when I was a child. Both in college and in the service, I would pick up pithy little sayings and tend to repeat them at home or elsewhere away from the initial environment. Just last week on a visit, I repeated something from my childhood that piqued the curiosity of my 9-year-old granddaughter (so maybe she will take it to the next generation).
    The title here reminds me of a tie clip that Theodore Sturgeon wore to an SF convention long ago in North Carolina. I think it was a question mark and a pointing finger. When asked about it, he said its meaning was “Ask the next question.” I think that was his version of “Run and find out.”

  5. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Can’t write a lot now, but today I was telling my 8th grade students (the youngest of the four classes I teach) that there IS a difference between “incite” and “incense!” Aren’t words WONDERFUL?! More later…

    • heteromeles Says:

      Incense is something you get to burn for others, incite is when you get others to burn something?

      • Ann M Nalley Says:

        Dear Heteromeles ~ You’re probably being clever (your comment certainly was clever!) and I’m too dim witted to be sure, but “incense” means to make someone angry, and “incite” which is subtly different, means to urge somone to violent behavior.

        in·cense
        noun /ˈinˌsens/
        A gum, spice, or other substance that is burned for the sweet smell it produces

        The smoke or perfume of such a substance

        verb /inˈsens/

        Perfume with incense or a similar fragrance
        – the aroma of cannabis incensed the air

        verb /inˈsens/

        Make (someone) very angry
        – she was incensed by the accusation

        in·cite 
        –verb (used with object), -cit·ed, -cit·ing.
        to stir, encourage, or urge on; stimulate or prompt to action: toincite a crowd to riot.

      • heteromeles Says:

        Well, yes, of course I’m having fun.

        The interesting thing is that incense in the anger sense is usually passive.

        Someone can be incensed when they’re angry, but you can’t incense someone, unless you’re just trying to blow smoke at them. In the later case, they might become incensed at your insensitive actions.

      • heteromeles Says:

        Thinking about it, I’d add that the active form of being incensed is fuming. You can fume or you can be incensed, but it’s less right that you can be fumed or incense about something.

        That’s my tiny little insight.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    I’m fascinated… Regionalisms win the day as to comments.

    Living in bilingual New Mexico, I’ve picked up a bunch. Some aren’t either English or Spanish, but rather tones or inflections.

    There’s a sound, sort of like “eee” that indicates sympathy and emotional commiseration. Sometimes it gets parodied by comedians, but it’s really much more subtle.

    Final “g’s” get minimal emphasis, but not in a lazy fashion. They’re present, just softened.

    Me, at grocery store, talking to Charlie/Carlos the greengrocer: “I can’t believe the price of these tomatoes!”

    Charlie: “Eee… I know! [“Know” manages to have at least three syllables] You plantin’ a garden this year?”

    Me: “Yah. Have the peppers started and the eggplant. Tomatoes, too, but they’re not comin’ up yet.”

    Charlie: “Ahh… From seed, then… That’s good…”

    And so on. Very comfortable, but would sound really affected elsewhere.

    I like Paul’s quote from Theodore Sturgeon… Now to go and consider the next question.

    • CBI Says:

      Another New Mexican borrowing from the Spanish (not Mexican) culture: the use of a questioning “no?” to mean “isn’t that so?” or “right?” As in “That was a really good barbecue, no?”

      Some regionalisms can get one in trouble. My ancestors are from a region in Texas that was quite ethnic and also strongly anti-slavery, etc., in the 19th century. (Lots of draft-dodging during the War Between the States.) However, at least into the 1940s, what we currently euphemistically refer to as “the N-word” was descriptive: no more pejorative than “Swede” or “German” or “Czech” or “Scot”. It was also quite common to mention the cultural background of people as part of a description — “German” or “Swede” or . . . yes, that word, too.

      I remember when my wife first came with me to visit some of the great-aunts and great-uncles — in their 80s then, and that was 25 years ago — their use of that term in a description of one of their neighbors shocked her quite a bit. Sometimes “diversity” and “cultural sensitivity” lead to more than was bargained for! 🙂

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