Wednesday 28 Sep 2016

Verbal Widdershins
Sjef Frenken

“I’ve just finished reading “The Ugly American” by Burdick and Lederer,” said Jack.

I said, “I vaguely remember reading it at the time it came out, around the early 1960s, I think.”

“What amazes me, said, Jack, “is how the phrase “the ugly American”, has come to mean the opposite of what the book’s title implied.”

I had to admit that I couldn’t remember the book all that well, so I asked Jack to explain.

“I mean the ugly American of the title was actually the hero of the book, someone who wasn’t like the other Americans wanting to live the American way in an alien land, eager to spread the benefits of the American Way of Life. The hero accepted the Asian culture he found himself in and did not look for Holiday Inns and Pizza Huts to feel comfortable. He was the one who did not fit in with his American associates, who were generally loud and obnoxious, very unconcerned with the cultural differences of the people they had come to assist. I guess Burdick and Lederer wanted to make the point by irony. Unfortunately the irony was lost on the great unwashed, who now apply the term to the typical parochial, loud American encountered all over the world.”

I said, “I can’t remember the author of the quote, but it goes something like this: ‘the typical American is very parochial, but he considers the entire world his parish’ Galbraith? It’s the kind of thing he would come up with. I think part of the problem is that most Americans believe what they’ve been told all their life – that their country is the best country in all the world. They want the rest of the world to be as wonderful as the US. They don’t believe that anyone living elsewhere could possibly think his country is better than the US, the UN ratings systems notwithstanding. I don’t think it’s arrogance; more likely indifference, or even ignorance. But to the rest of the world it comes off as arrogance, especially when it involves comparisons in terms of crime, education, health care, distribution of income and the like. It’s sad, in a way, as Americans when you meet them at home, so to speak, are as friendly, open-hearted, and helpful people as you could ever hope to meet.

“I appreciate the sermon,” said, Jack, “but that wasn’t the point I was trying to make.”

“Alright,” I said, “your point was that the meaning of words sometimes gets turned 180 degrees. It’s not all that uncommon. Think of another phrase current about that time -- ‘consumerism’. It meant the rejection of wasteful economic activity, and the protection of consumer interests. Now it means spending as much as you can, even going into debt over your head, all to keep the economy going at full steam. And there’s

‘hot’ and its counterpart ‘cool’. Both can be used interchangeably when you’re referring to ‘in’ people or things. And how about ‘livid’?”

“What about ‘livid’?” asked Jack.

I said, “it originally meant ‘pale’, ‘ashen’, as of a dead body. Now it is also used in the contrary sense, as in someone being ‘livid with anger’, red in the face. The polar opposite.”

We contemplated our empty plates.

I asked Jack “What made you read that book now, fifty years after it came out?”

Jack said, “I happened to come across it at the St Vincent de Paul store on Wellington. I was looking for books on South-East Asia. I’m planning another trip to Vietnam in the Fall. The blurb at the back said, it was a thinly disguised novel about Vietnam, so I bought it. I didn’t realize that wasn’t current. Still, it was a good story.

I said, “it was made into a film. I think Marlon Brando had the title role.”

That kind of ended the conversation. Jack picked up a bag with his purchase and got up, saying “I guess I’ll take my doodle to the washroom. See ya.”

“Doodle?” I asked

“Yes,” said, Jack, “as in ‘yank my doodle it’s a dandy’.”

I said I’d take his word for it and suggested he could take care of that matter on his own.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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