This Week’s Bit of String: A new political slogan?
I work with some amazing students and love my job, but the start of the school year is hard. Somehow there are always vast new tasks to train ourselves in, you know, during our spare time. Plodding to work in the mornings, a mental run-through of the day’s requirements almost overwhelms me.
Then I remember something that makes me smile: “Lying dog-faced pony soldier.”
I know this is ridiculous. It’s not an ideal phrase for the President of the United States to be spouting, even if it’s a movie quote. President Biden including it in a rambling answer about climate change in Hanoi recently probably didn’t advance the cause. (I’m linking to the entire press conference transcript because most of it was on-topic and coherent. I mean, you should hear the other guy.)
But it gets stuck in my head! Is that a writer thing, that words not even sung can repeat relentlessly in our minds?
And it’s so random, it makes me laugh. Biden says his brother liked to say “lying dog-faced pony soldier” when quoting a John Wayne film, that it was an insult a Native American character hurled at a cowboy or something. Seems like this alleged movie line gets stuck in the President’s head, too.
It’s weirdly inspiring that a random detail can live on, lodged in the minds of people who never saw the original source. It’s a little different from how the written word lingers in our minds. There’s something special about the oral tradition. I don’t know if we can capture it in our writing, but it’s worth celebrating in its own right.
This is extra strong in families. Maybe it’s because of our deep fondness for each other, and our affinity to one another’s voices, plus shared source material. When someone we grew up with, for example a sibling, tells a story, we can picture especially vividly its setting and characters.
While creating resources on persuasive techniques this week, I learned that the word anecdote basically comes from the Greek roots “not for publication.” (See more on the word’s origins here.) These are little stories that are either too biting, or would lose too much of their aural charm were they printed.
A lot of our favourite family references and legends become so because of how they sound when spoken. We didn’t even have to be there when it happened, we just love hearing about it. Humour’s always a hit, as well as special oral characteristics.
Rhythm: When my sister worked at the town recreational summer camp, she later recounted one boy’s plans for the rest of the day. Imitating his weary exasperation, she recited: “All I want to do/ Is go home/ and eat my sandwich/ and go outside/ and look for salamanders. But I never FIND any salamanders!” Punctuated with sighs, it’s almost like a poem. Sometimes I find myself planning my day to a similar rhythm.
Intonation: On a trip to Naples once, my brother went to the opera. There was a poorly older woman sitting nearby who kept unwrapping cough sweets during the show. This provoked the wrath of a German man in the audience. My brother quoted the man as he complained to the frail woman during the interval. ‘When you go to open up your BONBON… it is AWFUL!”
Transferring the Magic
Just within the last month, I found myself telling someone the bonbon anecdote—in my dreams. It’s that integrated in my subconscious, and I was never even there. I wonder if it sticks with any of the friends I might have mentioned it to in real life.
Sometimes, a little story weaves itself so inextricably into our fibre, we think it is ours. A secretary at my old job back in the U.S. told me one of the company’s engineers once submitted a receipt from a vegetarian meal with his travel expense report. He’d had a delicious mushroom—but the receipt was truncated so instead of asking to be reimbursed for shiitake, he was passing on a charge for “one large shit.”
My husband got such a kick out of this story, he came to believe it was a secretary at his company, across the ocean, who told him the story about one of their engineers. There my husband was, animatedly sharing it at some gathering, and I couldn’t help capping it off, somewhat mystified: “But that’s my story.”
That was only shock talking, though. The tale did not originate with me, and obviously I never intended it to end there either. I think it’s clear that stories, particularly when they’re passed on orally, get absorbed and possessed by all listeners. Isn’t that quite magical?
Are there special anecdotes you’ve heard that become living legends?