Living With the Past

A character in Woody Allen’s 2012 film “Midnight In Paris” paraphrases William Faulkner’s famous quote about the past never being dead, or even really past - nine words taken from Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun.”  I won’t use the exact nine words here myself, since the Faulkner estate sued Woody Allen and Sony Pictures for damages over the matter, demanding a cut of the film’s profits.  A federal judge in Mississippi settled the case by reading Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun,” watching Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris,” and weighing the similarities between the two.  He dismissed the lawsuit, while expressing his gratitude that the plaintiff had not tried to find grounds for copyright infringement between “The Sound and the Fury” and “Sharknado.”  Pretty funny, for a judge.

The Faulkner quote reminds us that the past does live on, swirling all around us whether we recognize it or not.  Kansas celebrated the sesquicentennial of its statehood only a few years back.  Most of our citizens live in towns and cities that were founded, paced off, and platted in the 1800’s.  We get from place to place traveling paved routes that were, not that long ago, rutted trails laid out by explorers.  Every day I drive down a highway which, roadside placards remind me, is a scenic historic military route, a road surveyed in 1837 to connect Fort Leavenworth with Fort Coffey in western Arkansas.     

Even if we don’t get out much, we can’t escape the past.  It's richly embedded in words and phrases we hear every day, figures of speech which probably should be extinct by now.  Instead they thrive, even when we aren’t quite sure what the words themselves mean.  While a few Civil War re-enactors occasionally stumble across a pasture armed with flintlock muskets, most of us have never seen one in action.  Yet we still speak of buying something lock, stock and barrel, or describe a meteoric but brief career as a flash in the pan.  Both phrases are reminders of a time when guns were handmade and costly, and thrifty owners routinely had worn or damaged parts replaced by gunsmiths.  One might buy either the intricate firing mechanism - the lock - or the gunstock, or the barrel.  Getting all three at the same time meant buying an entirely new gun.

It’s imagery that belongs to an era when pulling the trigger of a firearm forced a piece of flint to scrape across an iron frizzen, delivering a shower of burning iron sparks to the pan, igniting the powder in it with a flash of fire and a puff of smoke.  The small explosion in the pan sometimes failed to travel through the small hole in the side of the barrel to detonate the charge of black powder lodged behind a bullet.  In such an instance, firing the gun produced an impressive show to no real effect - a flash in the pan.

By the way, when I thought about what lock, stock and barrel means, I was tempted to say, it means the whole kit and caboodle, another phrase from bygone days.  “Kit,” was short for “kitbag,” a word which survives in the World War I marching song “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.”  It meant a soldier’s knapsack, containing personal items he might need in the field.  “Boodle” is derived from a Dutch word meaning “possessions,” and sometimes referred to a bunch of people or a pile of money, as in “booty.”  Adding a “ka” sound to the front of it was done solely to make it alliterate with “kit.”  We like alliteration, and we like the rhythm and plosive sounds these phrases produce, and continue to use them even if the individual words have long since gone out of style.  What is a shebang, anyway?  And does it come in fractions?

While going through pages of the Lovewell Index from 1913, I could watch the editor of that short-lived publication struggle with new lingo for a new era.  Use of the word “drive” in the sense of steering a vehicle, goes back hundreds of years, an obvious extension of its meaning "to urge an animal forward."  The editor of the Index continued to prefer its use for conveyances pulled by horses, while experimenting with alternate verbs to describe travel by automobile or motorcar.  Owners of the latter vehicles were said to have “autoed” or “motored” to their destinations.  It was a nice distinction when the automobile was a novelty, but would be abandoned as the new contraption quickly supplanted all predecessors.  Even when there were no beasts of burden to be urged onward with the judicious application of a lash, motorized vehicles began to be driven by drivers who took them for drives.  

I thought about the habit of clinging to obsolete jargon last week at work when we discussed Thursday Night Football (Coming to the NFL Network and CBS this fall!).  Let’s see, the network promises a pre-game show, a football game played according to glacially-slow replay rules, and a guaranteed post-game show, all struggling to squirm inside a three-hour-and-fifteen-minute window.  Are they kidding?  We’ll have to tape the ten o’clock news and play it back when the game’s over, won’t we?  Can we tape the ten?  Should we tape the ten?  Will we or won’t we be able to tape the ten?

Mind you, it’s been nearly a decade since our TV station recorded a program by running tape through a physical device, yet the outmoded terminology lingers, and will for some time.  At home the phrase “I DVR’d that for you” sounded cool for a brief while, but it hardly rolls off the tongue.  Much easier to ask my wife if she taped it for me.  She knows what I mean. 

© Dale Switzer 2023