standing on my head since 1993
george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Dec 1 21:07:13 UTC 2005
Ever since I was a boy I have been fascinated and astonished by the
fact that phrases and entire expressions can be formulas known and
used by an entire community. I remember when I was pretty small
playing in a friend's yard when one of us -- this detail hasn't stuck
in my memory -- was shit upon by a bird. When his mother cleaned it
off, she said "It's a good thing cows don't fly." I thought that this
was the wittiest remark I had ever heard, and when I got home I told
my mother about the bird, and said "Guess what his mother said." My
mother said "It's a good thing cows don't fly." I was astonished.
How could she have known? And so a philologist was born.
You all will no doubt remember the day in 1993 when I burst into the
world of philology with a note in American Speech discussing the
convict's defiant boast that he will do his sentence "standing on his
head". At that time the earliest citation I has was 1886 (the latest
was 1992). Here is an antedating of more than 25 years:
Yes, but never mind, boys, ten years is nothing; -- we can
stand on our heads for that time," said Diver. California Police
Gazette, April 17, 1859, p. 1, col. 3
Nowadays I think it is particularly interesting that there can be such
persisting statements can be amorphous. In this case, the actual
expresion may be "I'll do it standing on my head" or "I can stand on
my head that long", "hands" can be substituted for "head", and other
smaller variants can occur.
George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.
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