Hominy & Hash
LADY IN THE DARK
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- The first time I heard the word was when Dr. Steinman referred to me as "the ubiquitous Mrs. Daley." I didn't have a clue what he meant.
Normally, I can instantly break a word down into syllables and have a general idea, but "ubiquitous" escaped me. I tried for a fast save by smiling shyly and saying, "Well, I wouldn't say that."
He got wide-eyed and said, "I don't see why not. You are everywhere, after all." Hmm, that's a clue, I thought. He then started counting on his fingers: "I saw you at the mall, I saw you in the lobby at the movies, I saw you in Giant Eagle, I saw you in the parking lot - yes, I think I can safely call you 'the ubiquitous Mrs. Daley' without fear of contradiction." I smiled again and said, "Well, Dr. Steinman, if the shoe fits, I guess I'll wear it."
The next time I was left in the intellectual dark was during a meeting where nothing could be settled. One gentleman said: "I have better things to do than participate in this contretemps. I'm leaving." "Oh, don't. We'll be good. Let's settle it," the others said in unison, while I said nothing. I had to race to my dictionary at the first opportunity. How did all the others know the meaning and not I?
When I did grasp the meaning and fit it into his words as he did, I could only wonder why he would use contretemps instead of quarrel or disagreement or one of the other more common words for our squabbling, like dispute.
It is French, pronounced kon'tre tan, and its origin is a fencing term that means inappropriate thrust. In my older and wiser self I now see him as the thruster - quite inappropriately - while we were just a committee of members with disparate views trying to reach a consensus in the good old American way: a healthy argument.
I have reached a point where I wouldn't consider myself limited linguistically, and yet there are times I do realize I don't know what someone is talking about; worse, I wonder what I'm talking about when I listen to or spout off in computerese.
I've used the expression "devil's advocate" and played the part in a number of conversations and arguments without really, really, knowing its origin. How did I know that the official "Devil's Advocate" was "a canon lawyer appointed by the Church to argue against the canonization of a candidate to sainthood." Although the centuries-old position was abolished by the Pope in 1983, the term lives on as verbal shorthand whenever a conversation turns into a debate. That part, I knew!
I remember when hyperventilating was the common response to stress and people were talking about breathing into a paper bag. But back in the sixties the expression was new to me, and when I found myself in that distressing situation, someone said: "You're hyperventilating."
As I tried to control my breathing apparatus I gasped out: "No, I'm not hyperventilating, I just can't catch my breath." (Laughter all around.)
Helen told me about her walk through Central Park looking for the carousel. As she went down one lane and then another, she became more and more excited; her aunt was encouraging the excitement and when they finally rounded the proper corner, there it was. "That's not a carousel, Auntie, lisped Helen, "that's my Merry-Go-Round."
When I was about that age I was asked if I went to parochial school. "No," I said, somewhat perplexed, "I go to Cat'lick school."
It was a long time before I learned not to answer a rhetorical question.
And, the word became clear when someone asked how I handled the "exigencies" of having many children, car pools, lessons, sports schedules, diapers laundry, homework, meals, every day. (I knew it was a rhetorical question.) If I had been asked "How do you handle these exigencies?" without his listing them, I would not have guessed he meant the course of my hectic day. And, even that list pales next to what my daughters do; I didn't have to factor in their additional exigency - "getting to work on time."
At some time in our lives we feel absolutely "euphoric." When I first heard it, I scurried to Webster's and discovered its meaning, derived from French, is "borne well." Somehow that has been translated into what we know as a certain feeling, having nothing whatsoever to do with the circumstances of our birth. When you are in the state of euphoria, how, when and where you were born is surely a moot point.
Moot. Don't you love it?