Totally Crackers!

Synchronicity is a funny thing! I’d originally planned this essay for publication in June. But after reading about Lisa Kennedy Montgomery’s recent and inexcusable rudeness in calling Pete Buttigieg a Cracker, I simply couldn’t resist publishing this post immediately!

    Language evolves.

Recently, while re-watching an episode of Downton Abbey, I smiled when the Earl of Grantham referred to the behavior of another character as “totally crackers”, meaning wild, nutty, bonkers. My grin was brought about by the memory of two Black coworkers who, in 2014, were shocked when I used precisely that phrase while referring to our mutual supervisor.

My coworkers hadn’t, as I had, the experience of working with a Scottish woman and picking up the phrase from her. To them, “totally crackers” meant, could only mean Cracker, the nasty American Southern slang for “white trash”. They were quite obviously aghast at my light-hearted remark, and it took me a long moment to comprehend why. My lagging brain finally made the connection, via a half-dozen or so rarely used neural circuits, to the three years I’d spent living in South Carolina while I was still a young woman. It was there that I’d had the insulting sobriquet “Cracker” slung at me occasionally. The first time this occurred, I’d only recently moved to the South after a lifetime spent in Northern climes. I was completely unfamiliar with the idiom or why I would be called the name. I’d asked for enlightenment from a Black coworker, who promptly collapsed into hysterical giggles over my Yankee ignorance. “It’s the equivalent of you calling one of us the N-word,” she explained between chuckles. Oh. Well, I was still mystified as to why just walking down a sidewalk, minding my own business, should result in such an outburst, but at least I knew now that I’d been wise to ignore it.

Now, many years later and once again living in the home of my ignorant Northern roots, I found myself explaining to my fellow Yankee Black coworkers the actual meaning of the British phrase “totally crackers”. I could see that they remained unconvinced. To them, the word meant, would always mean, a rather nasty insult.

Is it any wonder that people can’t get along, when our very means of communication, language, trips us up this way? When, to a Brit, even the phrase “get along” sounds odd and wrong, and should more correctly be phrased “get on”? I also recall reading that the name of the main character in the Disney cartoon “Moana” had to be changed prior to the movie’s release in Italy because it was, most unfortunately, all too similar to the name of a well-known Italian porn star. Ooops.

Bad enough that a name should cause such consternation. But even the smallest of common phrases become mangled and altered enough to cause confusion. For instance, I grew up hearing only the expression “set foot”. That made sense to me (and still does); one sets a foot down. Now the more commonly used phrase is “step foot”, which sounds both curious and grammatically wrong to my ears. One steps into something, or just steps. A foot steps, but one does not step a foot.

Yet I’ve also learned that two of the idioms I’ve heard and used throughout my entire life are, in fact, quite incorrect: “You’ve got another thing coming”; and, “That’s that”. Apparently, the correct phrases are “You’ve got another THINK coming” and, “That’s FLAT.” Having never heard or read these sayings expressed in this manner until I’d reached my 50s, I simply can’t say them that way. I will never be able to use either axiom except as I’ve done my entire life.

This makes me sympathetic toward younger people when I hear them say “on accident”, even if I can’t accept the idiom, cringing when it’s spoken. The grammatically correct phrase is “by accident” – by meaning “via” or “by way of”. For some reason, the phrase mutated during a recent generation, and so now younger people have heard it as “on accident” throughout their lives. However incorrect the phrase may be, that is what they have always heard, and that is what they are always are going to prefer.

As I mentioned once to an acquaintance, language does evolve, else we’d all still be speaking and writing like Chaucer. (In fact, somewhere in my distant, misty past I read a poem that ended by making just that point. Unfortunately, three separate search engines and multiple wordings of the question have failed to bring up either the poem or the author.) But whether that evolution is a good or a bad thing probably falls into the category of personal preference.

For myself, whether or not my fellow ignorant Yankees have encountered the phrase, I imbibed the expression from my Scottish coworker, and so I’ll go on occasionally saying that things and people are totally crackers, despite shocked reactions from some acquaintances. Although, come to think of it, after six seasons and two movies’ worth of exposure to Downtown Abbey, people living both north and south of the Mason Dixon Line might now be more familiar with the British idiom.

But I’ll just never be able to “step foot” into a room or “have another think coming”. I’ll never meet someone “on accident”, and that’s just that, not flat.

It’s all just totally crackers.

Language does indeed evolve, as I first pointed out in “Pennies, Headlights, and Bubonic Plague”, which you can locate by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published on August 7, 2018.