Being gregarious

any gregarious folks out there? Howdy! anyone? looking down Sidney Street in Cambridge

I’ve been told that Americans are actually far from rude while abroad.

Well, what with our being loud and demanding good service all the time, we might come off that way, and so yes, we might be “rude” in that sense; I hope, however, that we are more classy than that, and stand up for ourselves in a charming sort of way.

Anyway,  I’ve read and observed that my countrymen are perceived as silly and bumbling, well-meaning and trying ever-so-hard to please, more Twain’s Innocents Abroad than The World’s Big Sister, which the sophisticated (and wryly world-wise) Brits find endearing.

I’ve been told, in fact, that if you (and by “you” I mean me, still quite the novice liver-abroader) are so thoughtless as to propose – on the spot – to your new English buddy that you should have an impromptu social call right then and there (“hey, Chester, how about we get some grub right now?!”), instead of recoiling in unfamiliar horror at the sheer impropriety of it all, the obliging Englishman will sometimes just make an exception for his obviously clueless American friend (not that this has happened to me … more than a few times).

Now, we’re not entirely exempt from all the various forms of etiquette one must try, at least, to observe in a foreign country (for make no mistake, England, as charming as it can be, is far from Kansas).

But I sense that we get a certain amount of “oh,-he’s-just-a-silly-American” grace.

I try not to use this leeway for mischief – never mind, I do. It’s great fun to “randomly” (ha! used my own word for this week!) start talking about the weather with a complete and total stranger.

“Fine day, isn’t it?” you say to someone next to you in a queue (pick a queue, any queue will do!).

“Oh, well, yes, I suppose it is …” your unfortunately placed neighbor will reply (even as he thinks, “why is this bloody weird Yank talking to me?!”).

“How are you doing?” I’ll ask.

“Ah, fine, thank you …” while he’s really thinking … “come on, silly queue, move faster, please!”

I don’t like to go too far beyond that, because the extreme social forwardness I’ve just displayed won’t get me much further. Sometimes, however, I’ll run into someone from Scotland or Ireland, and find I am soon hearing all about someone’s grandchildren or the weather in Dublin or Glasgow.

Aussies and Kiwi’s also tend to return any gregariousness shown them, to almost American proportions, often throwing in an odd joke or two, usually involving some “random” (ha! did it again) animal only found Down Under. I mustn’t forget our Canadian brethren either, who admit to being far more North American than English, especially while in England. Indeed, it seems that all our fellow colonists (past and present) enjoy the goofy, perpetually proper propensities of our English hosts, perhaps painfully (all right, I’ll stop with the alliteration).

But to conclude with an anecdote, while walking through St. John’s College the other day (it was snowing, if I recall, and rather medieval looking, more so than normal, particularly near its old gate), I overheard an older American couple talking excitedly.

“Is this where they filmed Harry Potter?” I heard the lady ask.

“I don’t know, dear, let me ask …” replied the dutiful husband.

I could imagine the eyes beginning to role around me.

“Silly Americans!” they all thought.

And I am one of them. Oh my.

Advertisements

This week’s word: “random”

David Parry and I looking rather random

It’s about time this blog had a “random” post.

OK, yes, that is a rather lame lead-in to this week’s word, which also happens to be random, as it were, which can be found, as usual, on The Cambridge’s Student‘s site, in its usual corner on its usual page, but also below:

“As one might imagine, the meanings of words tend to change, not always randomly, but sometimes seemingly so. I must thank my decidedly non-random friend Neil Simpson for suggesting that we investigate “random.”

Something or someone that acts in a random fashion, as we know it today, does so rather chaotically, without purpose or guidance. This contemporary meaning has its roots in a much less random meaning of the word, stemming directly from its origins in clashing knights on war-horses.

That is right: chivalry, and all that jazz.

The original Anglo-Norman and Old French word, “randoun,” dating from around the 12th century, and then the later Middle French word, “randon,” refers to “speed” or “haste,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED), and also to “impetuousness” or “violence,” from “randir,” meaning “to run fast,” or “gallop.” It might be related to the Germanic word “rand” (as in the Old Saxon, or Middle Low German) meaning “shield,” or, alternatively, “border” or “edge,” and thus “shield-rim” or “shield-boss” (the knobby thing in the middle of round shields, and handy for hitting).

As such, and as noted by the OED, the word can be found in as old a text as “Beowulf” (which itself dates to between the seventh and tenth centuries) with this rather undecipherable line, “He under rande gecranc.” An Old English translation of Exodus from the 10th century describes the parting waves of the Red Sea as the “randgebeorh,” or “shield-wall.”

We also find the Middle-French expression, de randon or “at speed,” and the Anglo-Norman phrase, a grant randun or “in great haste.” To strike “with great random” was to do so with great force while riding or running, as in the medieval joust, though “at the random” probably refers to the wilder jousting that did not include such niceties as barriers. Additionally, in falconry, “flying at speed” was said to be “at random.” These now obsolete meanings, as the OED tells us, referring to a “an impetuous rush” or a “rapid, headlong course” were its predominate senses until the 17th century.

By the end of the 1500s, the meaning behind the phrase began to change, and meant something less directed, and more out-of-control, perhaps stemming from the idea that running at a full gallop was not always the picture of serenity and restraint. Thus we have the Bard using this line in his Venus and Adonis (c. 1592), “But hatefully at random dost thou hit.” Alexander Pope (1688-1744) later used the word in his Dunciad, which attacked hack writers, with the line in question being, “She shows … How random thoughts now meaning chance to find.”

Finally, in a bit of nostalgia, Mark Twain (i.e. Samuel Clemens; 1835-1910), used the word in 1889, in its older sense, in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with the line, “Two knights came together with great random.”

Well, I hope that was not too terribly random, as it were. If you have any (random) word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”