Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Agatha Christie’

Double Dutch

Posted by Admin on August 30, 2011

When’s the last time you heard someone say they heard someone speaking double Dutch?  Anyone who is accused of speaking double Dutch is being accused  by the listener of speaking gibberish.  Double Dutch also happens to be a jump rope game that uses two jump ropes swung simultaneously in opposite directions in a crisscross fashion.

In Chapter IX: Dr. Bauerstein in Agatha Christie’s book “The Mysterious Affair At Styles” written in 1916 and published by John Lane in the United States in October 1920 — published in the UK on January 1921 — the following conversation is written:

“You miss a lot. A really perfect bit of old china–it’s pure delight to handle it, or even to look at it.”

“Well, what am I to tell Poirot?”

“Tell him I don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s double Dutch to me.”

“All right.”

I was moving off towards the house again when he suddenly called me back.

“I say, what was the end of that message? Say it over again, will you?”

” ‘Find the extra coffee-cup, and you can rest in peace.’ Are you sure you don’t know what it means?”

I asked him earnestly.

He shook his head.

“No,” he said musingly, “I don’t. I — I wish I did.”

E.W. Hornung‘s book, “Raffles, Further Adventures Of The Amateur Cracksman” — which was also entitled “The Black Mask” in some countries — was published in 1899.  In this book, the following passage is found:

“Ah,” said he, “that was before I knew you were altogether without experience; and I must say that I was surprised even at Mr. Maturin’s engaging you after that; but it will depend upon yourself how long I allow him to persist in so curious an experiment. As for what is the matter with him, my good fellow, it is no use my giving you an answer which would be double Dutch to you; moreover, I have still to test your discretionary powers. I may say, however, that that poor gentleman presents at once the most complex and most troublesome case, which is responsibility enough without certain features which make it all but insupportable. Beyond this I must refuse to discuss my patient for the present; but I shall certainly go up if I can find time.”

In the John Davis book “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America” published in January 1803, the following exchange happens between the First-mate and Mr. Adams:

First-mate. – You lie! It was one of my countrymen, Madoc ap Owen Gwyneth; I can give you chapter and verse for it.

Madoc wyf mwydic ei wedd
Jawn genau Owen Gwynedd;
Ni fynnwn dir, fy awydd oedd
Na aa mawr ond y Moroedd.

Mr Adams. – What devil language is that? Is it double Dutch coiled against the sun?

First-mate. – It is Welch.  It is what the full-breasted girls talk in the mountains.  If the frigate don’t blow us out of the water, and this fair wind holds, I hope next month to be bowsing some of their jibs up.  If they knew I was coming, they would give the Olive a tow.

By now, readers are possibly asking themselves why the English speak disparagingly about the Dutch language.  The fact of the matter is that when William the Conqueror defeated the British at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he made French the official language among nobility and the upper classes.  Up until that point, English and Dutch were dialects of the same language, sharing a basic Germanic vocabulary.  When English was reinstated as the official language of Britain in the 14th century, generations of peasants had changed the language to such an extent that it no longer resembled Dutch. 

To muddle things up more, some English words had become extinct, some Dutch words survived, and a large number of French words had infiltrated language in Britain in general.  By the time the Dutch Golden Age arrived there were over 2,000 words of Dutch origin in the English language.  And by the time the 16th century arrived, the word Dutch was an insult for anything the English regarded as inferior or contrary to English practice.

All this is why the English have referred to language they cannot understand as double Dutch.  While there is some Dutch in the English language, when a listener cannot make heads or tails of the conversation and it has become incomprehensible to him, it’s as if there’s double the amount of Dutch in the conversation than what someone is used to hearing normally.  This is what, in the opinion of the English of the 16th century, made the language inferior to English and so it is tagged as double Dutch by the listener.

Posted in Idioms from the 11th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Never Two Without Three

Posted by Admin on March 9, 2011

The saying “never two without three” means that something, either positive or negative, that has already occurred twice before is likely to happen a third time. It is a direct translation of the French proverb, “Jamais deux sans trois” and the Italian proverb, “Mai due senza tre.”

Just a few years back, in a story published on September 18, 2006, USA Today interviewed then-French President, Jacques Chirac.  The interviewer stated that perhaps this would be the last time — this interview being the second such interview during his time in office — that USA Today would have the opportunity of interview Jacques Chirac as the President of France.  His response to that comment was this:

You never know. There’s an old proverb in French that says “never two without three.”

In the Indian Express newspaper published in Madras, Tamilnadu, India dated November 3, 1940,  an article appeared entitled, “Axis-Vichy Settlement Chances Evaporating” that reported:

Expectation of the an early settlement between France and the Axis have evaporated.  This wide-spread conviction in well-informed circles proves the oppositeness of the old French proverb “Jamais Deux Sans Trois” for it was already being taken for granted that Hitler’s wheedling of France had miscarried and many are at least doubtful whether Mussolini’s bolt in Greece has not misfired.

On October 24, 1935 a staff correspondent wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor out of Boston (MA) entitled, “France Awaits Radical Swing To Left Or Right.”  It was the eve of the re-opening of Parliament in France and due to pressure from an international crisis at the time, the Radical Party knowing it held the fact of the then-French Cabinet in its hands.  It read in part:

The annual Congress of the Radical Party has resulted under somewhat similar circumstances in the overthrow of the French Government. There is a popular French proverb which says, “Never two without three.”

Agatha Christie’s short story “Never Two Without Three” is a Miss Marple story from the book “The Tuesday Murders” published in 1933.  The UK title was “The Thirteen Problems.” The original title for the story was “A Christmas Tragedy” but as was the way of publishers back in the day, the editor of the short story collection was renamed “Never Two Without Three.”

The publication “Italica” carried an article in 1983 entitled, “James Joyce and the Italian Language” in which readers learned that James Joyce’s elective affinity for Italian began in 1894 at the age of 12. James Joyce, it would appear, was familiar with the Italian proverb, “Mai due senza tre.”

Interestingly enough, Idiomation did find both the French and the English versions of this saying on the Hennequin Venteuil Coat of Arms.  The Blason de Venteuil, which is the crest from the Champagne region in France, dates back to January 13, 1722.

Try as Idiomation did, Idiomation was unable to track the phrase back in French, Italian or English any further than the early 1700s even though it appears to have already been established in both English and French conversational language as a proverb in 1722.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »