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David Bruce: Don’t Fear the Reaper — Language, Media, Mishaps


• Lord Phillimore (1845-1929) once tried a man who was accused of murdering his wife. Lord Phillimore asked him, “Did you say to your wife, ‘If you bloody well don’t take care, you will repent of it’?” The defendant replied that he couldn’t have said that because he didn’t use that particular word. Lord Phillimore asked, “I suppose it is the word beginning with ‘b’ that you do not use.” The man replied, “Oh, no! I do use that word. It’s the word ‘repent’ which I don’t use.”

• Ballet master George Balanchine, who was born in Russia with the name Gyorgy Balanchivadze, knew English well, but he often used Russian sentence constructions when speaking English. No problem. Those people he knew well always understood him, and he requested that when reporters quoted him, they put his sentences into correct grammatical form.

• Samuel Johnson went to a market to buy fish, but he discovered that the fish at a certain shop were not fresh. The woman selling the fish argued with him and insisted that the fish were fresh, so Dr. Johnson called her a noun, an adverb, and a verb. Because the woman didn’t know what those words meant, she thought that Dr. Johnson was insulting her.


• Writer Ben Hecht hated pomposity. When he was writing for his own newspaper, the Chicago Literary Times, the Moscow Art Players came to Chicago and performed, entirely in Russian, The Brothers Karamazov. Approximately 3,800 people in the audience listened to Russian actors speak Russian for four hours, then they gave the actors a tremendous ovation. Of the 3,800 people in the audience, Mr. Hecht figured that no more than 20 people could understand enough Russian to follow the play, and so the tremendous ovation they gave the play annoyed him. Because the Chicago Literary Times was his own newspaper, Mr. Hecht could do with it what he wanted, so he decided to have the review of the play translated into Russian and to print it that way. However, after the review was all set in Russian type, the printer dropped the type and it scattered all over the floor. Unfortunately, no one there knew how to read Russian and since the paper had to go to press right away, they picked up the type and put it back anyway they could, knowing that the review no longer made sense. As it turned out, the mistake didn’t matter. After the paper was published, approximately 60 letters arrived, all praising the review written in Russian and saying that it was the best thing that the Chicago Literary Times had ever published.

• The Chicago Herald-American once offered the prize of a summer job to the winner of a contest for high-school students who submitted news stories. The winner was a female student who sent in an article about a fire. Ray Brennan of the Chicago Times, however, recognized the article when it was printed — he had written it. Therefore, the Times printed both Mr. Brennan’s article and the plagiarized article by the female student — they were identical. The Times also printed this note: “Ray Brennan, veteran Timesman, today won a distinction never before accorded a Chicago newspaperman. He won the girl reporter prize from the Herald-American.”


• Makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin is one of those people who are supremely competent at what they do. He once made up model Cindy Crawford for a photo shoot (to create a Vogue cover) during which she would wear a pink outfit and a beige outfit. Before starting to apply her makeup, he asked which outfit she would wear first. Hearing that she would wear the pink outfit first, he made her up accordingly (her hair and makeup took two hours), knowing that he would have to change her makeup for the beige outfit. Unfortunately, the beige outfit arrived first, and Kevyn said, “Oh, I thought we were doing the other outfit first. I’ll have to change a few things.” Vogue editor Polly Mellon asked how long it would take, and Kevyn said, “Ten minutes.” Polly then asked, “No. I mean how much time for a ‘Kevyn Aucoin’ makeup change?” Kevyn replied, “Ten minutes, Polly.” Kevyn was such a perfectionist that if he had needed more than ten minutes to change Cindy’s makeup, he would not have said that ten minutes was all he needed. (That Kevyn needed only ten minutes for the makeup change was a huge relief to the person who had mistakenly told him that Cindy would wear the pink outfit first.)


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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