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At Table with Granny

My grandmother loved language; she loved words and, having been blessed with a classic education that included Latin and Greek as well as French, she spent much of her life reading with a handy etymological reference guide inside her own head. When she was in her sixties, she decided to read the New Testament in the original Greek to gain a better understanding of the true meaning of the text without the strong-armed Elizabethan interpretations of the King James Version. I remember her sitting, as she often did, in her four-poster bed (the one in which she was born), a silver tray by her side, Darjeeling tea in a tea pot, taken with milk, two pieces of dry toast, and one three-minute egg in an egg holder, all the while holding forth on her favorite topics: the sublime and metaphorical nature of Christos, the writings of Thomas Merton and the brilliance of Karl Jung. Granny would correct my speech with such an interest and style that she unwittingly nurtured a nascent linguistic interest and, today, I find that I am still enamored of the strange and organic world of language.

One of the many fascinating features of English speech, besides the continuous addition of new words and the evolution of old ones, is the glaring omission of the little definite article, “the,” from some forms of British parlance. Americans, like our English counterparts, naturally avoid use of this cozy little word when saying we are “at home” or if we say that we are doing business “in house.” Nevertheless, we do not say, as the Brits do, that we are “in hospital” or that we are “at table;” that we are going “to market” or that we are “on holiday” (in the last case, omitting an even smaller word: the indefinite article, “a”). Perhaps we didn't pack these little phrases in our colonial valises when we fled that northern island over three centuries ago. Furthermore, we Americans use that frank and unpresumptuous little word, “the,” the way it was meant to be used: in front of almost every noun.

An omission of “the” may seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of important linguistic developments — there are always new, brash and dramatic changes in our restless language. How about the new and upbeat meaning for the word “pimp,” which, as an adjective, now apparently means “attractive and noteworthy” compared to the older definition of the noun that describes a sleazy man who mishandles and beats his stable of prostitutes?

Linguistic development, slang, and the ever-changing and organic subtleties of language are fascinating as with the lovely little word “gay.” Once an indication of carefree, fanciful happiness, it is now an important sexual classification both politically and socially. Still, the modest little word, “the,” seems to have an equally complex and important structural and social significance when it is used and when, as sometimes is the case with British speakers, it is not.

My first exposure to the loss of the word “the,” was through the speech of my grandmother, a staunch New England Anglophile, who would stun my young New York State mind by reminding me of my manners while we were sitting “at table.” Thinking that the omission of “the” in this phrase, was only alien to me because of my rural dairy farm background and fearing the inevitable snub that would result from questioning my sophisticated grandmother, I never had the courage to ask what had happened to the little definite article I had always taken for granted as ever present in front of most nouns. I was further amazed when Granny told me that dear Mr. Bertrand was “in hospital,” and that we would go to see him on our way “to market.” Although I wasn't completely sure, I sensed that her omission of such a perfectly friendly little word indicated some unknown but preferred social status. No one I knew in and around my home farming community would have left out the word, “the,” with such authority. Looking back, I am sure Mrs. Kaulkbrenner, my eighth grade English teacher, with her bristling can of stiletto-sharp pencils, would have pursed her lips and re-crossed her thin legs, while placing a red circle in front of the words “hospital” and “table” to notify me of my omission.

Much later, in a sort of affirmation, I found that announcers on the BBC unfailingly left out the word, “the,” when they referred to someone who had entered a hospital. “Margaret Thatcher was admitted to hospital for a minor complaint last Tuesday and will be released from hospital on Monday next without any additional fuss.” As I listened and read throughout my adult life, I began to understand that Granny was imitating the Brits and their style of language. Since she worshiped the old homeland with what might be described as Anglican passion, if such a thing is possible, it was no surprise that she adopted such turns of phrase and used them as if they were integral to her speech patterns.

During the sixties, when I was properly horrified by my grandmother's social insulation and her contempt for the less “well-bred” strata of society, I became more and more annoyed and insisted on using a patois guaranteed to raise her neck hairs. To be fair, words like “freaky,” “groovy,” “solid,” and “right on,” did not disturb her nearly as much as saying that one was “full” while having dinner. The word “full” would send her into orbit because it meant that the person who uttered it was displaying their anatomy and discussing a physical function while “at table,” behaving as if they were acting like a sausage or a series of intestines, now packed to bursting, something that offended her greatly.

After her death, as I read and listened and contemplated over the years, I began to consider the idea that the presence or the absence of the word, “the,” meant more with regard to the phrases “at table” or “in hospital” than I had first suspected. When the Brits say someone is “in hospital,” it seems to mean that the person is in a sick condition or in a state of being ill, rather than implying that someone is merely physically present in the hospital. When they say that someone is “at table” it seems to hint at more than the simple act of sitting down for dinner. Rather, it seems to denote a condition or a state of being that involves, somehow indirectly, dining. I am sure that Granny would have been offended by someone saying that we were “eating,” a gross and offensive word to the post-Victorian, hinting at nasty physical processes. It was much more polite and dainty to say we were “at table.”

I am the same age as Patty Hearst, and from a somewhat similar background, although far less financially well endowed. When she was kidnapped by the rabid SLA, I was “in university” hanging out with some fairly ineffectual “revolutionaries” whose biggest demonstration involved showing up in DC to protest the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. When I look back and consider some of the things that would have offended dear old Gran, I realize that a few of the lip-smacking, wipe-your-mouth-with-your-hand, belch-like-a-pirate, fart-when-the-spirit-moves-you, and let-me-tell-you-about-my-latest-high-colonic dinner conversations, didn't really sit well with me either. In retrospect, I might have used Mrs. Kaulkbrenner's ever-present wooden ruler to smack the back of their greasy, anti-bourgeois hands to say: “We don't discuss biological functions while squatting AT TABLE!”

Still, as fancy as it might make me seem, I do not use the phrases “at table” or “in hospital” when I speak. But I do try to impress the concept upon my teenage children that manners only make life easier for everyone, especially for strangers who have just met or for people from different cultural backgrounds. I tell them about one of my famous learning experiences on the dairy farm at the age of eleven, under the tutelage of my father (the son of Granny), one of the first pre-Beat, Back-to-the-Land, Bohemian rebels. My parents, perhaps in a fit of remorse, were determined that my sisters and I should have a foundation in social intercourse so we could handle ourselves, I suppose, when we met foreign royalty or Boston Brahmins. I never will forget sitting around the table in the old brick farmhouse, the faint odor of honest manure emanating from my father's neo-Rousseau-ian trousers, his hands cracked and seamed by his winter labors.

The lesson for the evening was the use of the finger bowl, a small container of water, served with wafer-thin lemon slices or rose petals floating on top. This pleasant ritual is used for cleansing the fingers between dishes so that the next course is untainted by the glorious scents of the previous one — especially if it is fish. I have never used a finger bowl since that lesson, mostly because I have never seen them while dining in my earthy Humboldt County social circles, although I have plunged my fingers into a water glass while eating crab in a fancy restaurant, especially because there were lemons floating in the water.

More important than the lesson of the finger bowl was the story my father told me during the tutorial. He said that there was once an American journalist who was visiting the Queen of England for dinner. While they were seated “at table” and between courses, finger bowls were placed in front of every diner. The American was nonplussed, but gamely picked up the bowl as if it were Chinese soup and drank it down. Without missing a beat, the Queen did likewise and the entire court followed suit. Of course, a snob might respond to that story with pity for the poor provincial journalist. But, I like to think that, by not making the man feel or look ridiculous, the Queen showed some generosity and, somehow, that seems to be the essence of good manners while seated “at table.”

I'm not sure how Granny would have handled the situation had she been Queen. I would hope that she would have been equally generous and kind. Trying to imitate the British nobility by leaving out that friendly little definite article, “the,” is probably forgivable in my snobbish old grandmother and some, reading this little diatribe on language and the smallest and, perhaps, most important article in the English language (aside from “a” and “an”) may think that this is an exercise in triviality. Still, I found that the importance of this little word was magnified recently, when examining some modern poetry. I read a fairly enigmatic poem in the American Poetry Review that made me want to find Mrs. Kaulkbrenner's ruler! As mightily as I tried to, I could not understand the poem's meaning because it was so deep that I could not find it. Still, I thought that the poem's ending was very impressive. The final lines concluded with that most diminutive but essential definite article “the” as the very last word in the poem. It stood alone, unpunctuated and uncapitalized, a valiant little trooper. I promised myself that, given the same opportunity I would never do such a thing! I vowed and swore up and down that I would never misuse my linguistic artifice to end anything I ever wrote with that little, important and often misused or left out modifier, “the” (.)

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