American Expressions Mystify The World

America has a time problem. I don’t mean our obsessive need to “save” time that foreigners have long joked about. We aren’t like that anymore; the American in a hurry has slowed to a crawl and now uses what little Yankee ingenuity he has left to figure out how to get more “leisure” time to spend with his family. Now that we are no longer speed demons or efficiency freaks, we might reasonably be expected to develop the richer, fuller attitudes toward time that we profess to admire, but the opposite has happened. We are still in a time warp, only this one is even worse than the one we shed. Now it’s not merely clock time but our whole concept of time-past, present, and future and their links to each other- that has been shot to hell.

aeChronological eeriness lurks everywhere. Mark McGwire’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record was almost overshadowed at one point by talk of what pitcher would become “immortal” by giving up the big one. Masochistic debates about enduring a lifetime of pity to get to the good part tend to spring up when a nation’s population is in the habit of spending much of its day hitting Rewind and Fast Forward buttons. For the time-warped it’s a matter of personal preference, and Reds pitcher Brett Tomko is a Fast Forward man. “If it’s hit off me,” he said, “I’d be on every highlight film for the rest of my life. I’d be part of history.”

Strange American expressions are just one of the challenges immigrants trying to assimilate, according to, which just published an article on the challenges of immigrant entrepreneurs.

Another Fast Forward favorite is the expression “lame duck.” It used to refer to a defeated incumbent during the period between his loss of an election and the inauguration of the victor. Now it means a President entering his second term. The moment he wins re-election, a feat once once regarded as an ultimate triumph, he’s called a lame duck.

To see the Rewind set in action, turn to any Op-Ed page and you will find that of the five syndicated columnists featured, four will attempt to make their points by quoting Yogi Berra’s “It’s deja vu all over again,” while the fifth, more literate than the rest, quotes Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”

The past may not be dead but we do our best to kill it while simultaneously wallowing in nostalgia. During the late unpleasantness a parade of White House flacks went from talk show to talk show comparing Ken Starr’s investigation to the puritanical, sexually repressed, hypocritical, hysterical, paranoid, Commie- hunting days of McCarthyism, only to be interrupted by pictures of drive-ins and T-Birds and Dean Martin singing “Memories Are Made of This” in the ubiquitous commercial for tapes from the Nifty Fifties.

Among the chief killers of the past are, of all people, writers. The increasing number of novels written in the present tense (“She takes off her bra and moves her hands down her hips, knowing that he is watching”) are defended on grounds of “immediacy,” but in fact their authors choose to hit the Record button because it saves them from getting tangled up in auxillary verbs.

We have developed a mental block against using past tenses correctly. Even educated people say “If he would have sent the letter. . . . if she would have gotten the job . . . if I would have had time. . . . ” Damnit! A past action that precedes another past action takes the pluperfect: “If he had sent . . . if she had gotten . . . if I had had . . . ” This is more than bad grammar: No longer willing or able to cope with anything unequivocal, we skirt the pluperfect and substitute the past-conditional to give ourselves what we imagine to be chronological wiggle room.

vsThe word “past” has become a virtual synonym for bigotry and hence must be avoided by any means necessary. Everybody in publishing knows that Alexandra Ripley was chosen to write the sequel to GWTW because she came up with the craziest plot. An authentically rendered past makes a novel hold together, so to be on the safe side she opted for shattered, dragging the story to Ireland to avoid dealing with the ex-slave characters and substituting a caesarian performed on Scarlett by a Celtic witch.

Our time conflicts have produced an intense interest in the past alongside an utter contempt for it. Editors used to write “off-chron” in the margins of manuscripts to call attention to errors of this type but now nobody cares how many howlers end up in print, and reviewers who do care are called “picky.”

Among my shoot-the-messenger experiences was a biography of Clark Gable which claimed that while shooting the 1953 movie Mogambo, Grace Kelly called Gable a “male chauvinist pig,” an expression born in the 1970s. The heroine of a novel set in 1938 spoke of looking “sexy,” a word not in use 60 years ago. She also put on a brand-new pair of nylons straight from the box even though women of the stocking era always washed new nylons first to keep them from running. I’ve found a blouse in 1910 that should have been a “waist” and a record player in place of a “Victrola,” but the worst was finding a 1955 scene in my own memoir updated by a proofreader who was blindsided by her own terminal now-ness: She changed “t-d” to “nerd” to conform to my 1985 publication date.

We have lost our grip on the rhythms of life. In the Middle Ages there were no clocks, just church bells ringing the canonical hours: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. It was unhelpful for making precise appointments but as psychological accuracy it was unsurpassed. The sonorous bells literally reverberated within medieval man, cleansing his soul. By contrast, we get to watch a miracle take place when the detergent removes a stain from a T-shirt in ten seconds while the Elapsed Time ticks away at the bottom of the TV screen.

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