Paperwork

Trinity College: built on ... lots of paperwork

My first inclination was to apologize, which was very English … as instead of finally writing about my recent trips to some of the villages surrounding Cambridge (which I still promise to do), I wanted to mention one very British bugaboo: paperwork.

Amazingly, the UK has a bit of a bureaucracy. Shocking? Not quite. Nonetheless, I am used to paperwork. Growing up in a military family, we did a great deal of paper-pushing, form-filling and question-answering, and as my parents used to say (and still do, even though I ought to know better), “God doesn’t fill it out for you” (usually used as an encouragement to apply to something I know I don’t have a hoot and a holler of winning, but should apply to regardless; another saying of my mom’s: “the only way you can make sure you don’t get something is by not applying for it!”).

Really, I have some empathy when it comes to writing in block letters in little boxes on piles, nay, veritable swaths, of dead trees (err, I mean paper).

Yes, I am slight environmentalist; I love to recycle, and therefore feel bad using so much paper … But the British have taken it to a whole new level: they love the stuff! Forms in triplicate, forms for forms, signatures, notarized copies … it’s all very Proper and Procedural, of course, sort of like politeness turned pulpy, or queuing on stationary. If they were good at it, I wouldn’t mind so much. But the sad truth of the matter is that they’re not.

For example, I ordered a mini-fridge for my room a long time ago (back in October). I waited for the proscribed amount of time (about five weeks or so) and then checked to see where it was … it wasn’t quite ready, they said. So I told them not to worry, but to deliver it to my room for the first week or so of this term … ah, but no fridge was forthcoming. I checked again. Several weeks later, a sincere apology is made, but “sorry, sir, but it seems we never actually ordered it …” . Ugh!

Now I just assume that processing all that paper will just take time. If they say something will be ready by Thursday (in this case, my student-loan checks), I realize nonchalantly that they won’t really be here until Monday.

“They’re not in yet … sorry.”

“Oh, that’s all right …” I saw out loud, but to myself: “didn’t expect them to be, you silly Brit!”

With internal dialogue like that, it’s a wonder I haven’t lost what remains of my sanity. I’ve come dangerously close on several occasions, mind you, but several good cups of tea and several dozen sugar cubes usually sets me right again. I realize that just to be here I had to slay whole forests.

Going back home and hiking in the woods will my chance to atone for all the paperwork I’ve done: “I am sorry, my arboreal friends, for taking so many of you down in my mad quest for a Cambridge MPhil!”

In the end, however, I can agree with Treebeard: “My home is deep in the forest near the roots of the mountains.” I do miss you all back in the Northwest, and hope to see you soon.

For now, however, my road (or rather rail) leads to London; I am hoping to go down on Friday, to visit a few touristy spots, and take some photos.

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This week’s word: “hep-cat”

"I am hep?" probably not ...

Behold! This week’s word continues my recent series (that sounds quite serious, doesn’t it? to have a series, I mean) on slang; you can read it below, or look on pg. 16 on the left-hand side of the version posted on The Cambridge Student‘s site. A quick note though: “hippy” and “hipster” are cousins of “hep,” just in case you were wondering (now that you know, you are “hep,” ha …):

“Since we have been on such a slangy roll in this column, I thought we ought to continue it this week with “hip,” or, rather, “hepcat.” I must thank my friends James and Erica for suggesting it, in Grantchester, of all places.

By “hip” as an adjective, what is really meant is “hep,” a classic piece of mysterious American slang that has its roots in jazz (just like “cool”), when to “be hep” is to be “well-informed, knowledgeable, ‘wise to’, up-to-date [or] smart,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED).

Hence a “hip-cat,” or a “hep-cat,” is “in the know” as an avid aficionado of jazz, and all its hep derivatives, including swing. It appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896-1940) posthumously published novel (in 1941), The Love of the Last Tycoon, with the line, “Suddenly they were at work again – taking up this new theme in turn like hepcats in a swing band and going to town with it.”

A “cool-cat,” incidentally, is much the same thing, defined as “an admirably fashionable or stylish person,” a fan of jazz and swing, says the OED. Now, how cats become cool, and learned to dance, is another matter entirely.

But the fact remains that cats and cool and dancing, along with dancing cool cats, became synonymous in the swing scene in early 20th-century America, so much so that Louie Armstrong could declare in 1932 that “All the cats were there,” and a May 23, 1942 issue of the Chicago Defender could say that “Perry Givens played a cool cat at the May dance Friday,” two of the earliest attributed examples of “cool-cat.”

As far as hep-cats are concerned, in 1938, the academic journal American Speech defined the word as a “guy who knows what it’s [the swing music is] all about.” As related by the OED, a 1940 issue of the same journal contains this anecdotal bit of speculation: “‘Tis said that back in the 1890s Joe Hep ran a saloon in Chicago… Although he never quite understood what was going on, he thought he did… Hence his name entered the argot as an ironic appellation for anyone who thought he knew but didn’t. The ironic sense has now largely disappeared … in … to ‘get hep to.’”

Your etymological columnist thinks that explanation is more than a little spurious, but it is interesting, and helps to illustrate how such theories make a sort of sense, even when nonsensical.  Technically, however, “hep” proper first showed up in written English in the Dec. 5, 1908 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, with the line, “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

Yes, that is most puzzling indeed. I hope you enjoyed that hep slang, and if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”