Tag Archives: books

A mad pensioner

There once was a mad pensioner from Brecon
Who sat at her desk and said: “I reckon
I am not a he
Whatever they decree.”
So said that mad pensioner from Brecon.

The writer of the booklet I reviewed in a publication I edit (unpaid voluntary work) with some others wrote a reply correcting some errors I had made. However, the paragraph she wrote in defense of the language which I had called sexist in a brief note at the end of my review, was longer than anything else in the letter. The booklet is written totally in the language of he/man. The only “she” to be found between the covers of the booklet is the author. In the letter the author states that the original meaning of the word “man” is “a human”. She thinks it is absurd to try and change the language and that she wants us to return to the sanity of the old meaning.

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...

Image via Wikipedia

The letter got me thinking and reading. I found out that indeed the word “man” (or “mann” as it was also spelt) meant “a human” in Old English before 1066. The word “wer” or “waepman” was used for a male human and the word “wyf” or “wifman” for a female human. So how was this kind of equal presence in the language lost to women? Lost to the extent that in 1971 Richard Gilman can observe “that our language employs the words man and mankind as terms for the whole human race demonstrates that male dominance, the IDEA of masculine superiority is perennial, institutional, and rooted at the deepest level of our historical experience.” (quoted in Man Made language by Dale Spender). As Dale Spender put it “I saw it as a convenient means of making women invisible, for blanketing them under a male term.”

The Norman Conquest brought the Norman French to the fore and the Old English remained the language of commoners. Over the years Old English disappeared and although traces of it can be seen in our Modern English it is a different language altogether. Later on what was to be known as Middle English became the language of the country although French retained its  importance for some time. The Middle English developed further into our Modern English and even the Middle English can be understood by present English speakers if some words were translated for them. Like the lines

First I pronounce whennes that I come,                                             And thanne my bulles shewe I, alle and some.

This means: First I declare where I come from, and then I show my official documents, each and every one. (The Pardoner’s Prologue, Chaucer.)

In the Middle English, in which Chaucer wrote, the noun “man” means both a human and a human male. There does not seem to be any trace of “wer” left, but the word “wif” means a wife and “wives” and “wommen” mean women. So already there is a shift to making a man to be a norm and hiding a female under the man. Dale Spender relates the progression of how this was achieved in her book Man Made Language. In 1553 Thomas Wilson “insisted that it was more natural to place the man before the woman, as for example in male and female, husband and wife, brother and sister, son and daughter.”  Next came Joshua Poole who in 1646 put forward that “it was not only natural that the male should take ‘pride of place’ it was also proper because, in his line of reasoning, the male gender was the worthier gender.” This was taken even further by John Kirby in 1746 when he  “formulated his ‘Eighty Eight Grammatical Rules’ … Rule Number Twenty One stated that the male gender  was more comprehensive than the female.” Thus the male grammarians had come to the decision that the correct pronoun to use when the gender is not clear is  “he” and not “they” which had been in general use in these instances. But even the 1850 Act of Parliament which made this legal could not totally get rid of the usage of “they” when the gender is not clear.

It seems after all this that it is impossible to return to the use of “man” as meaning only “a human” and not also a male human. However, there have been changes since Dale Spender’s book was published. Women have been clamouring to get noticed. They have been telling that they do not feel included in that terminology. They do not really want to be included in the word “man” or in the pronoun “he”. It is quite common nowadays to see the word “humankind” instead of “mankind” and more people are using two third person singular pronouns instead of just “he” when they write about people. All good and well. Just as it should be. Perhaps we should even invent a third person singular pronoun which can mean both she and he when we do not know the gender of a person. Marge Piercy in her book Woman on the Edge of Time used “per” for both she and he. Perhaps we can adopt this usage and forget she and he altogether.


Creeping quietly or raging against the dying of the light?

The word decrepit has been on my mind yesterday evening and this morning. Last night and this morning I felt that it applied to me, but to make sure I checked it in some internet dictionaries and this is what I found out: Things the word describes are “worn and broken down by hard or long use” and when it refers to people they are “weakened, worn out, impaired, or broken down by old age, illness” or “lacking bodily or muscular strength or vitality”. The Latin word it comes from is crepare and its meaning is given as “to make a noise, rattle” or “to burst, crack” or “to creak” (three different dictionaries). And yet the one that says it means “to make a noise, rattle” also says that the Latin “decrepitus, perhaps orig. [meant] noised out, noiseless, applied to old people, who creep about quietly”.

I like the idea of being “noised out”. It gives the impression that I have made a lot of noise about something and now am finished with it. I do not like the idea that I would “creep about quietly” when I am old (61 is not old!). I think we should do what Dylan Thomas told his father to do

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Yeats, also, would not accept “creeping quietly” in old age but protested against such an idea:
You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attention upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?

I did feel old and decrepit last night and this morning. However, I felt it more in the way the things are said to be “worn and broken down by hard or long use”. The use in this case was not so long but certainly felt hard to me. It was the treck home with the heavy load in the rain that did it for me.

A friend of mine has gone on holiday and asked me to look after his business while he was away. His business is selling things, mainly books, on the internet. I am to go to his place twice a week to check the orders and send them off. It is supposed to take only a couple of hours. Yesterday there were more orders than there were when he showed me how to do things. It took me a while to locate everything in his storeroom. I got everything done ready to fill in the order for the mailing part of the work. That is when his computer decided not to work so well. The end result was that I could not make the connection with the person who collected the mail from the mail box down the road. And when I still had not managed to fill in the internet form for the payment of the mail by the time the later post collection was happening I gave up trying to do it with his computer. I packed all the books and other stuff and everything else I needed and came home. I walked in the rain with those heavy bags to catch a bus and then at this end walked some more in the rain. When I got home I just dumped the bags in the living room, heated some soup my youngest had left me before going to the music festival, ate and went to bed.

This morning I was still aching from the previous night’s struggles. But I was at the post office here soon after it opened handing in one big and heavy sack of mail having walked another fifteen minutes in rain – again. I did not have many bags to carry as I managed to fit most of the packets in my suitcase with wheels. In the post office I put them all in the mail sack.

I am going to do the whole business from my home from now on. I shall check the orders here, print the labels and go with them to my friends place. I shall collect the things to mail out and pull them home in my suitcase with wheels. Then I shall finish the business here and take them to the post office here. Unless his computer works better next time. I shall give it a try, but will not wait if it is not fast enough.

Memories are made of these

Memory is a funny thing. It is possible to have two people remember the same incident totally differently. A memory of something in the past is always coloured by the present and all that has gone in between. And no two people experiencing that one instant have all the same experiences after that shared one. And even coming to that shared moment nothing else is the same; everything is unique to each of them – even that shared moment. Whatever I shall write about my past – when I really get down to it instead of this meandering from one thing to another – is written here and now with here and now memory and interpretation of what I remember. There have been times when one or other of my children has corrected my recollection of something or other. On one or two occasions the recollections have been so different that I could but wonder whether we were talking of the same incident.

I have read and heard people talking about their lives when they were very very young, babies in fact. Some even talk about remembering their own birth sliding through the birth canal. I must say that I read and listen to those stories with scepticism. Yet, I do not want to deny them. Who am I to say what others can remember.

I have been trying to work out what my earliest actual memory is. I have been told things about me when I was a baby, but I do not remember any of them actually happening. My earliest hazy memories are about the primary school. In Finland, where I was born, children start school when they are seven years old, but I do not remember the first day as such. I do not know if my first memory is of that day or of some other day. I have a memory of standing in the school yard and being aware of my underpants, which were made by my mother and not your standard shop bought issue. I was ashamed of them and afraid that somehow other kids would find out about them.  I have other flashes of memory about the years in the primary school. None of these early memories could be related as a continous story; most of this time is just a blur in my mind.

We used to play baseball in the school yard during recess and in physical education lessons in spring and autumn. As the school was a small village school with just a handful of pupils all years played together. In the winter we did skiing. We had competitions between other primary schools in the area. I remember becoming the third once and getting a spoon as a trophy. A girl from my year was jealous thinking that she should have got it saying something to that effect to me. An older boy told her off. I think that was when I was about ten.

Some of my most pleasant memories about this school were times spent in the school kitchen. It was a big room with a big farmhouse table able to seat ten or twelve of us children. We had breakfast at school made by the cook. It was the best porridge I had ever had. Another thing happening around that table was a story club. A few of us children attended it and our teacher read us stories or novels. I remember her reading Little House on the Prairie and eagerly waiting for each session.

The school library was a treasure trove to me. The children’s library was a bookcase about one metre by one and a half metres in size situated in one of the two classrooms. The adult library was perhaps slightly bigger bookcase in the school hallway open one evening a week to the whole village. In the four years I spent in that school I read all the book in the children’s library and when I was allowed access to the adult library I read many if not all books from there too.

There is one very sweet memory from those early years – my first love. I suppose it could be called that although I do not remember much about my feelings at the time. I just know that thinking about it now gives me a pleasant feeling. I think it must have been at the beginning of my last year in the primary school when I was ten. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon. We (don’t ask me who – I cannot remember) were walking home from school. A neighbouring farm boy told me that they had really good apples and he would give me some if I walked with him to their farm. So I went with him leaving others to continue on the main road. He went on ahead to make sure their dog could not get to the orchard as I was afraid of it. It had a fierce bark if nothing else and ran after us if we rode the bike past their house. (I usually speeded up before the house and put my legs up on handlebar for the stretch past the house.) He then came back to me lead me to their orchard. We lay on the grass eating apples and looking at the blue sky with a few cumulus clouds appearing here and there. We looked for shapes in the clouds, but apart from that did not talk much. I was late for dinner that day. Everyone else was sitting at the table when I got in. As usual I did not get much attention on coming in.

I keep thinking that I should have some earlier memories than the ones from the primary school and after. However much I strain my brain no memory comes from my early childhood. I wonder why and I wonder how common it is not to remember. All the people whom I have heard talk about their early memories have them from much earlier than me. I have some theories based on what I have been told and what my experiences of my home life were from the time I remember anything. However, they have to wait for another day.