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Jack Smith

Please don't rag on him just because he's a little bit fussy--at least the man ain't given up looking for the light

August 26, 1985|JACK SMITH

In writing recently of "Colonial American Usage," a collection of words and phrases from Colonial times, I regretted that certain vigorous expressions were no longer in use.

Specifically, I deplored the evident departure of light , in the sense of window; ballarag , which meant bullying language; and pettifogger , which meant a lawyer whose methods were petty, underhanded or disreputable.

Richard M. Lederer Jr. also notes in his book ("Verbatim") that colonials used ain't as a contraction of am I not .

While all those words are still in use, to one degree or another, I was most delinquent in not recognizing the word light , which is still commonplace in architecture and the building trades.

"A window was called a light ," I said, "a wonderfully poetic and descriptive term, since in daytime windows light a house, and at night they seem to be its lights."

I added: "I see that meaning is given as the ninth meaning under light in Webster's New World, but I have not lately seen or heard its use."

Dorothy Commentz of Monrovia is one of several readers who wrote to tell me that light is still in use in the sense of a panel of glass in a door or window.

"I would like to inform you," she writes, "that the term light is used quite commonly in the construction business. My carpenter husband explained to me that a light is . . . a pane of glass in a window."

Mrs. Commentz also drew me a picture of a window with eight lights--two vertical rows of four, which reminds me very much of our front door. It has nine panels in three rows, and I am happy to know that they are called lights.

Conrad Thomas of Ventura explains the disappearance of pettifogger as follows: "It's not so strange; the term pettifogger . . . is no longer needed. In the minds of most people today, lawyer says it all."

I think Mr. Thomas not only exaggerates; he has libeled a generally honorable profession. I am not unaware that journalists, in the minds of many, are thought of as character assassins and gossip mongers.

As for ain't , it of course persists in some regional dialects, and among literate people in humorous context--or supposedly humorous context. For example, the commonplace: "It ain't necessarily so."

Edith Nelson of Apple Valley finds ain't I preferable to at least one fashionable alternative: "Many, many years ago when I was a child (I'm 79 now), we had a saying among ourselves that went, 'You can't say ain't because ain't ain't a word. I think I would rather hear ain't than what I am constantly hearing now on TV--'I am, aren't I?' Have even heard Laurence Olivier say it when he was being interviewed."

Yes, I believe the English favor aren't I , although I find it affected and even more illiterate than the honest ain't I it is meant to replace. I don't like it. But then I'm fussy, am I not?

Quentin Riggs of Huntington Beach writes to bring me up to date on ballarag . "It is alive and well," he says, "as ballyrag or bullyrag . Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines bullyrag as 'to torment' by teasing." The Oxford English Dictionary defines ballyrag as 'to maltreat, especially jocularly; to play practical jokes on; to indulge in horseplay. . . ."

Lynn Kappmeyer of Palm Springs writes in ironic anguish to say that any mother knows that a lot of Colonial expressions are still in use.

" Ballarag ," she notes, "has been shortened to rag , as in, 'Mother, don't rag on me--I've had a bad day."'

It doesn't surprise her, either, that in Colonial times a barber, reflecting the poor state of medicine, was one who performed blood-letting and minor surgery.

"My son and his friends," says Mrs. Kappmeyer, "must think of the barber as a blood-letter. Anyone who has put a 2-year-old in the barber chair knows that it is inbred, and even as teen-agers they will avoid going for a haircut."

As for the archaic term bear garden , which was a place for bear baiting, hence, any place where uncouth conduct prevailed, Mrs. Kappmeyer says:

"Our home is a bear garden. Any place with one or more teen-agers is a bear garden."

The story of Mrs. Kappmeyer's life is liberally sprinkled with colonialisms:

"We gather as a family to dine and bargain (to make small talk) at least once a day. . . . Sometimes, in quiet moments, I think back 20 or so years to when I was a wench . I was in a gynecandrial state (men and women together) and I was a jilt (a woman who trifles with her lover) looking for the flourish (hasty sex) of life with all my young flourishing friends, dreaming of someday being the wife of a barber or pettifogger, and knowing I would never be the old fogey my parents were.

"I met a handsome young man in a shiny red sociable (a four-wheeled vehicle) who called me the light of his life and we have been together ever since. Even though he sometimes remarks on getting his hands on the black coat (preacher) that made us legal, and I sometimes wish I had gotten to a nunnery (in Colonial times, a brothel)--whichever meaning, today's or yesterday's."

I have an idea that Mrs. Kappmeyer is just ragging us.

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