or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


First, let's have a story.

Jim and I used to watch a show called "Rocko's Modern Life". It's animated--what would twenty years ago have been called a children's cartoon, but very hip, very funny, one of those shows that is made with an eye towards the grownups. (Why isn't it out on DVD yet?) In the fourth season the main character--who is a wallaby and whose best friend is a young, very stupid bull named Heffer--becomes a model for Wedgie Boy underwear whose catchphrase is "Don't hate me because I'm Wedgie Boy". (This is a takeoff of a much-parodied shampoo ad from the eighties in which pillow-lipped model Kelly Le Brock said, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful".) We found Rocko's phrase hilarious, and it immediately entered our catalogue of things to be trotted out at random moments, where it remains to this day.

Now, some well-known phrases.

Gild the lily
Blood, sweat, and tears
A rose is a rose is a rose
Head over heels in love

So what does my pointless story have to do with these phrases? They're all wrong, that's what.

We managed to see a couple of episodes of "Rocko's Modern Life" recently and discovered, ten years after the original viewing, that what Rocko actually was said was the far less amusing, "Don't hate me because I wear Wedgie Boy". The form in which the phrases are best-known is not that in which their authors wrote or intended them:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily...
blood, toil, tears, and sweat
Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose
heels over head in love

Stories change in the telling, or in the remembering. So do words and phrases. It's a signal fact of any living language: the original expression (a word, an idiom, a pronunciation that links it to the past) slips and wavers, and people substitute what they think they heard--what sounds better to them. And so the new phrase enters the language, stubbornly wrong, alongside the old, locked in a battle for supremacy: only one survives, and if it is the wrong one, eventually it has to be seen, for better or for worse, as right. (Saying "paint the lily" would probably result in one's being corrected, leading to one of those pedantic, unsatisfying arguments, and it's hard to imagine anyone's saying "heels over head" in the interests of linguistic precision.)

I am a demon for accuracy, but our new and improved version of Rocko's phrase is still the one we use, and accuracy be damned. If we need to quote Gertrude Stein, though, we both, having read her, get her right. Even if most people would think we're wrong.


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