Archive for August, 2012


by Ruth Minshull

              I’ve always been fascinated by the way certain words and phrases suddenly gain popularity–for no apparent reason.

George Bush, for example, probably regrets that he ever said, “Read my lips…” before he promised “no new taxes.”  Politicians have been breaking campaign promises since they crawled out from the swamps.  People growl a bit, then forget them and carry on.  But “Read my lips” was a little too catchy, too trendy, to be easily forgotten.

Later the phrase “but I didn’t inhale,” became an instant cliché.

And there’s the unforgettable:  “That depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Patrick Henry’s timeless declaration, “Give me liberty or give me death” was destined for immortality as soon he uttered it.

Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man.  One giant leap for mankind” marked a historical moment.

“Let them eat cake,” was actually from Rousseau’s Confessions.  No one seems to mind that it has always been falsely attributed to Marie Antionette.  Maybe that’s because she had an attitude problem–something like that of Leona Helmsley.  Leona’s offhand remark that only “little people pay taxes” came back to bite her.  I’ve always been certain that it was her arrogant words that did her in.  I doubt if most people (outside of the IRS) cared that much about her taxes, but, by golly, they didn’t like being referred to as “little people.”  Those words will be remembered when her bones are dust.

During World War II the words “Kilroy was here” appeared as graffiti wherever American GIs went.  Its origin is uncertain, but some think that it first appeared on a new ship–put there by a worker in the shipyard.  (Mr. Kilroy, I presume.)  Anyway, the GIs took to it, and wrote it everywhere they went.

This leads us to the famous words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” uttered by Sir Stanley.  Those words, spoken on November 10, 1871, have survived for over 140 years, though I’m not sure just why

Sometimes a line out of a commercial will develop a life of its own.  “Where’s the beef?” or “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

More recently we have the memorable “yabba-dabba-doo” from the Flintstones--which defies translation.  The Sopranos immortalized “forgeddaboutit”.  Then there’s the catchall “yatta yatta” from Seinfield.

In fact, Seinfield fans will recognize a number of words and phrases the series brought into the language:  “low talker,” “re-gifting,” “not that there’s anything wrong with that” or “master of one’s own domain”

Recently I ran across the phrase, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”  This was the command, given by Admiral George Dewey that began the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War.  The line was recorded, and thus preserved, in history books.  However, even though it is about 20 years younger than Stanley’s greeting, it seems to have been forgotten.

I think that’s too bad.  I like the phrase.  Such a polite understated way to start a battle.  And, of course, the name Gridley glides off the tongue in a most satisfying manner.

I don’t think there’s much hope of getting today’s generals or admirals to adopt this genteel command.  More likely they say something like, “OK girls, let’s kick butt!” or perhaps something a bit raunchier.

Nevertheless, I’d like to revive the line–although I’m having trouble figuring out how I can drop it into conversation.  I’ve never really had to start battles, (in fact, having raised two boys, I have much more experience in trying to end them)—and perhaps it’s a little late to expect such an opportunity to come along.

I’ll probably need to create my own opening for it.  The next time I’m with a group of people and one of those awkward lulls settles on the conversation, I could liven things up by firmly commanding, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

I guess the only question here is:  will they laugh, look around apprehensively (for an gun-toting “Gridley”)–or just carefully back away?


* * *

© 2012 by Ruth Minshull

Read Full Post »