Who’s counting?

Tomorrow – Tuesday, April 7th – will mark a clean slate, a fresh start following precisely 14 days of quarantine. It is forecast to be sunny and warm. That’s nice! The last time I was out of the apartment was Monday, March 23rd when I mistakenly visited Lincoln Heights Ford to have the air pressure in my tyres increased (and subsequently the same day to have a replacement Sirius radio module ordered). The events continue to this day to be a moderate embarrassment, the punishment of which is relieved by my sincere misconstruction of the current social restrictions v-à-v those we had cultivated in the United States of America as recently as March 19th when we mournfully left Longboat Key to return home. I can’t recall ever having felt so robbed of a month of my lifetime, not even when lying in the hospital for about a month after my heart stopped while bicycling. That at least was an adventure of sorts! Shamefully I have yet to discover how to readapt the comparatively minor vacation interruption to the larger scope of just being alive. There lingers an imperturbable sense of violation and trespass – though without the benefit of having someone to blame. Blame I find is always so conveniently distracting.

Instead I am for the moment preoccupied by the always assuredly uplifting promotions of my erstwhile physician – whom I assume (between attendances at the hospital) is similarly sequestered in deference to the nationwide recommendation of social distancing and general invitation to “stay home“. He lives in the country so his obscurity is more easily reckoned.  In this instance the diverting topic he has shared with me by email is that of manners, specifically a publication in The Times:

Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece is discussing the problem of napkins. “We’ll be at dinner,” she says. “And somehow, my 11-year-old — the napkin has not been placed on his lap!”

Say what you will, manners are a champion topic at any time.  There is the overall binary look at manners; namely, they’re only required when things aren’t going swimmingly.  Otherwise just about anything works!  When however people succumb to insistence upon a certain code of behaviour – usually because it shields them with something from somebody – the innuendo is just too delicious to ignore! It’s psychological analysis is akin to asking a woman why she loves him – if she knows why she does, she doesn’t!

Nonetheless there are some details – especially at table – which warrant a degree of observation.  I never fail to alarm myself to see the cumbersome manner in which some people struggle with a knife and fork – holding them upright with a fist, not a delicate extension of the forefinger.  It is demonstrable violation of mechanical propriety. One wonders when they began using devices to eat? This however is not always an overstatement.  I understand that in some cultures eating with one’s fingers is not uncommon. Before anyone one of us utters an indignant “Pshaw!“, let me remind you of the things you likely eat with your fingers – fruit, crackers, barbecued shrimp, spare ribs, corn-on-the-cob, bacon, toast, chicken legs.  On the other hand, limiting butter to a torn bit of toast instead of the entire piece is perhaps unnecessarily precious – though admittedly rather more robust than its refined option.

The imperative of smaller bits of toast for the butter reminds me of another silly social calculation. It is arguable that the “polite” option  gives the appearance of delicacy. I recall being told by a Branksome Hall old girl that her mother fed her and her sisters porridge shortly before they dined with company in order to prevent the girls from seeming too anxious at the trough. This preposterousness is echoed in the other social custom of raising one’s pinky when drinking tea. So premeditated is the exhibition that one can’t imagine it being repeated in a “normal” congregation.

It amuses me too that the deliberate adoption of traditionally lower-class usages can translate into a preference of the hoity-toity; such as, “ain’t” and  “au reservoir“.

Ain’t has been called “the most stigmatized word in the language”, as well as “the most powerful social marker” in English. It is a prominent example in English of a shibboleth – a word used to determine inclusion in, or exclusion from, a group.

Historically, this was not the case. For most of its history, ain’t was acceptable across many social and regional contexts. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, ain’t and its predecessors were part of normal usage for both educated and uneducated English speakers, and was found in the correspondence and fiction of, among others, Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron, Henry Fielding, and George Eliot. For Victorian English novelists William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope, the educated and upper classes in 19th century England could use ain’t freely, but in familiar speech only. Ain’t continued to be used without restraint by many upper middle class speakers in southern England into the beginning of the 20th century.

Forgive my prejudice but the acceptability of “ain’t” was either class-driven or an affectation.  It is unimaginable that anyone who purposively avoids pronouncing words properly (for example, “Bee-Chum” for “Beauchamp“; “Chum-lee” for “Cholmondeley“) and who says “Thanks awflee” could be expected to have stumbled upon “ain’t“. It’s a deliberate statement designed to capture the unmistakeable abandon. As my erstwhile physician commented on the lesson in manners by the Princess of Greece:

Agreed – it was so ridiculous a piece – why do we need her advice on anything ?