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.

Language Is a Funny Thing

Will regional idiom become more or less common due to social networks and instant communication?

I recently read a BBC article questioning whether Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle’s accent was becoming more British. Skimming through the examples proving the author’s point, I shrugged. “Yeah, probably,” I thought, “because she now lives in Britain. She’s surrounded by those speaking British English.”   As myself recalled from three years spent living in Charleston, South Carolina, after a childhood growing up in the Midwest, one picks up not only regional dialect and phrases, but a touch of an accent, while living in those circumstances. I rapidly shed my faint overlay of a Southern American accent upon my return to the Midwest, but I still occasionally find myself reaching back through time for a turn of phrase which causes my Midwestern acquaintances to double-take, such as when I declare an attractive man to be “right pretty”, or claim that someone is “no brighter than a firefly’s backside”. I do not, however, complain that a room is too “airish” (breezy) any longer, and  the memory  is still vivid of my total confusion when a Southern acquaintance referred to the previous night as “slept under blankets”. Uh, didn’t most people sleep beneath a blanket or a sheet, I wondered? It took a real twist of Sherlockian brainpower to make the deduction that, to someone for whom a “warm” day was 90°F, sleeping beneath a blanket was a rare occasion, occurring only when the temperatures had plummeted to a surprising low.

It astounds me that, in a era of instant communication, not only accent and dialects, but regional idiom, persist. Yet they do, and I find myself often either bewildered or surprised by them.

I remember sitting in the theatre at the first showing of the movie “Home Alone” and being astounded when the sleepyheads awaken to screech, “We slept in!” My reaction was a straightforward, “Huh?” To my understanding, sleeping in was something desirable; it was a leisurely Saturday morning in which one had nowhere to be and nothing important to accomplish, and just planned to putter around in a bathrobe all morning. Rolling out of bed just when one felt like it was sleeping in; waking in horror, too late for an appointment, one’s job, or a plane trip was not sleeping in, but oversleeping. These were too separate occurrences, with two separate phrases to describe them: one delightful, the other absolutely awful.

I encountered the same confusion when watching a popular sitcom and hearing a character declare that he was close with his sister. Huh again. Close with? I’d never encountered that phrase. The Midwestern reference I’d grown up with and used all my life to describe a warm personal relationship was close to.   Just as one might be described as close to an emotional melt down, one was also close to a beloved friend or family member. Next to. Beside. Near to. Dear to.

More recently, a trip to the grammar advice pages of the Web was triggered by hearing the phrase step foot. By now growing accustomed to my “Huh?” moments, I decided to research, learning that the phrase had evolved from the original, set foot, around the year 1500. Huh. 500-some years. Funny, then, that I had never once heard it until 2018. The grammar page went on to explain, though, that the use of step foot rather than set foot had become more common since the 1980s…which actually made it still strange that I had never encountered the expression during those 30-some years. I’ve grown more accustomed to hearing it, but I can’t say that I like it. It just sounds wrong to my ear.

And then there are the phrases on accident and by accident. On accident makes me grind my teeth! One can do something on purpose, intentionally, but one can only do something unintentional by accident. Even the language tutor pages agree with me on this one: on accident makes grammar purists cringe. The difference—intentionally, unintentionally—is marked by the preposition.

But those who have grown up using the expression on accident would probably not agree. We usually prefer the language forms to which we’ve been accustomed. Which begs the question, will regional idiom become more or less common due to social networks and instant communication?

One can only wonder. I will ponder it the next time I’m waking from leisurely sleeping in.