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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 31, 2010

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Lost, Leap Year, and Idioms

It's always so ironic when a school system posts a public announcement that shows that members of the administration are not terribly well educated.

Here's the most recent snow day announcement: "Due to inclement weather, Guilford County Schools is closed Wednesday, February 3."

The schools is closed? Really? The teachers and students is staying home?

OK, I know why this happened. The district administrators think of "Guilford County Schools" as a single entity. It's like the way the Brits think of "government" as a plural ("The government are working to solve this problem") while Americans think of it as a singular ("The government is laboring to make things more difficult and expensive").

But the only people who think of the phrase "Guilford County Schools" as a singular are the district administrators, who apparently live on their own little island.

The rest of us think of "Guilford County Schools" as a whole bunch of individual schools, and we're barely aware of them as a collective entity. If any of the district administrators remembered whom they're actually talking and writing to, they would never commit a solecism like "Guilford County Schools is closed."

*

Lost's last season has begun -- and begun well, I must say. Though in a way I'm just the tiniest bit disappointed that they had to resort to the gods of Atlantis (or so it seems) in order to explain the phenomena of the time-traveling island, and I'm even more disappointed that the "real" John Locke is dead (and possibly the real Sayid as well, since his "resurrection" may be more a matter of possession).

The loss of Juliet Burke was inevitable -- actress Elizabeth Mitchell, who plays her, has a regular part in V -- but it still disappoints me that in the last season, we won't have one of the best, deepest, and most sympathetic characters in the history of television.

But the story, while still puzzling, is not confusing -- that is, we know exactly what is happening, we just don't know all the explanations yet. But we're moving toward them, step by step.

For those of you who gave up on Lost (mostly because of the going-nowhere storyline in the cages in the beginning of the third season), I can only say that you really should get the DVDs and watch the rest and try to catch up, because this ending is looking to be everything we hoped for.

But hearing producers Lieber and Lindelof talk about it on Jimmy Kimmel the night of the season premier (Tuesday, February 2nd), it is obvious that they did not know the ending they were aiming for from the start -- the third season was so weak precisely because they were spinning it out without any idea of where they were going.

I told them so! I wrote an introduction to the book Getting Lost, which came out soon after the second season. In that intro, I specifically called for them to do what they finally decided on: Determine an ending for the series and then write to that ending.

My statement, which they are now fulfilling: "It must reach an ending, and the ending must satisfy us."

*

Leap Year aspires to be a remake of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, and in some ways it brings it off. Certainly we were entertained by the movie, and only afterward did I notice that I had been hemorrhaging IQ points throughout.

A young New York woman who is used to getting her own way (Anna Brady, played by Amy Adams) goes to Ireland to propose to her longtime boyfriend, Jeremy (a cardiologist, played by Adam Scott). But a storm diverts her plane to Wales.

Anna doesn't like it when she doesn't get her way. She makes unreasonable demands and seems utterly lacking in the ability to be either patient or understanding. So she crosses the Irish Sea on a small boat and gets deposited on the shore near Dingle, where she finds herself in a dilapidated inn run by an Irishman named Declan (Matthew Goode).

She hires Declan to drive her to Dublin so she can propose to her boyfriend Jeremy exactly on schedule. Of course everything goes wrong, including staying at an inn where they have to pretend to be married, having her luggage stolen so that Declan has to fight the thieves to get it back, and so on. (Just another bit taken from It Happened One Night.)

If you can't guess the ending, you have never seen a movie.

The trouble is that It Happened One Night was a very fragile flower. The young woman in that film (played by Claudette Colbert) was also spoiled and obnoxious, but she was running away from her wedding, not rushing toward a proposal. That rather changes things.

And we have the serious problem that Leap Year begins in the viewpoint of the irritatingly spoiled young woman, rather than the point of view of the man who protects her. Instead of him getting to know her (along with us), we are stuck with her from the start.

Ten minutes into the movie, I leaned to my wife and said, "I don't like anybody yet, especially not her."

Now, this doesn't mean I didn't like Amy Adams in the part -- she did (as always) a superb job. A superb job, alas, of playing an unlikeable twit -- which left us, for a long time, with nowhere to stand. She didn't like him, and we didn't like her, and that's not a recipe for a hit movie.

It Happened One Night starred the single most popular romantic lead in film at the time -- Clark Gable. Leap Year's guy is Matthew Goode who, while he's very good eye candy (I'm told) and a fine actor, does not start out with everybody in the audience wanting him to succeed. Instead, we know (because this is that kind of movie) that he will succeed or the movie would never have been made; the air of inevitability is hard to overcome.

Yet it is to the credit of the actors and the writers (Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, who committed Made of Honor, Josie and the Pussycats, and A Very Brady Sequel) that in fact we do come to like both characters.

Still, I can't help but think that what kept us watching for long stretches was the absolutely glorious Irish countryside and Declan's Irish brogue. Perhaps the film should have been billed as "Leap Year, starring Ireland."

Although the movie is by the numbers, and they get some of the numbers wrong, it was charming and entertaining and if we weren't emotionally moved, at least we were pleased with the ending.

The single worst thing about the movie was the ludicrous premise -- that because Ireland apparently has a tradition of women proposing to men on leap day, Anna feels she must fly there and go through all she goes through just to be able to propose on that day.

If she had had any spunk at all (unlike Lou Grant, I like spunk), when her boyfriend seemed to be proposing and the ring box turned out to contain only earrings, she would have said, "Oh. I thought you were proposing. I really wish you would."

Of course, then there wouldn't have been a movie.

I'm guessing that the trigger for the idea of this movie was the Irish custom, which somebody saw on a website and thought, OK, let's write a movie about this.

But as any good writer knows, you follow the story where it goes, and if the original premise gets in the way, you toss it and find a better one.

The writers tried to take the curse off the patheticness of the premise by having Declan constantly talk about how stupid it was to propose to a man on leap day: "If he wanted to marry you, he would already have asked." To which her answer is only, "But it's romantic!"

If they wanted to get her to Ireland to propose, there are only several hundred better ways than enslaving her to a custom that even the movie admits is dumb.

I'm glad I saw this movie -- once. I'm glad that they have no F-bombs in it and no actual nudity or sex. That's a step in a good direction -- the great romantic comedies never need any hopping into bed to work well, and crude language just makes people less likeable.

(In real life, too, by the way. Shock-value words and romance really aren't all that compatible. Once the shock has worn off, the memory of the words is still there, and it can be sickening.)

There is a great cast of minor players, and Amy Adams and Matthew Goode are charmers and have some decent chemistry. In the filmic dumping ground of winter, I recommend this movie three-quarters-heartedly.

*

It's interesting to see Amy Adams moving forward in her career. This is an actress who has been working almost constantly since she first popped on the scene in 1999. Inside the industry, her talent has been well known. Yet only recently has she begun moving forward to real stardom.

Her big breakthrough was Enchanted in 2007, where she played the singing-and-dancing Disney-style princess who gets transplanted to our world (thereby putting a spike in my own novel, Enchantment, which is way better and came first, but now can't get filmed).

Yet even after that, it was hard to remember Amy Adams. Partly that's because she disappears into her roles a little -- a good thing -- but I think it's mostly because she has such standard good looks. There's nothing odd about her face -- which makes her rather easy to forget.

I know, that seems stupid, doesn't it? But think of the big stars: They almost always have a unique look, caused by something that I'm sure they thought of as a defect growing up. I'm not going to enumerate all the obvious things, like Julia Roberts's huge mouth -- it makes for a dazzling smile, but isn't it also just a little scary? -- but most actors who stick in our minds as stars are actually just a little goofy. Think of Cary Grant, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and old Jug-Ears himself, Clark Gable. Goofy.

With Amy Adams, though, there's absolutely nothing wrong with her. Which is why, as I was watching the "Burning Down the House" episode of the first season of That '70s Show and she popped up as a cheerleader type, it took me half the episode to figure out who the heck that actress was.

It wasn't because that episode was made ten years ago -- she hardly looks a day older now. It's because she was cast in the part precisely because she was pretty in a completely standard way. That she could also act was just a bonus.

In a way, her lack of memorability is a good thing for her acting. The Amy Adams of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and the Amy Adams of Julie & Julia are completely different -- all we remember is the characters, not the actor who played them.

But that's also why, when she's playing a character we don't much like at first, her star power doesn't pull her through the way it did with funny-faced little Claudette Colbert.

What made me realize I knew the girl in that That '70s Show episode was her mannerisms, her way of delivering lines, her sauciness. That remains no matter what part she's playing, and it is much of her likability. So Amy Adams the person is memorable; it's just Amy Adams the celebrity face that isn't.

Or maybe everybody always remembers her perfectly and I'm completely wrong. It could happen. But I doubt it.

*

The Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches: Meanings and Origins of Thousands of Terms and Expressions should have been a wonderful book; instead it's barely adequate.

It's not as if we're going to be surprised by any of the entries. The fact that they're cliches implies that everybody knows and uses them; in fact, almost all of the entries are not cliches per se, but rather idioms or figures of speech.

It's important to keep that in mind, because we're taught in school (with the usual perversity of English teaching) to "avoid cliches." Yet no one really defines what a cliche is. So I'm going to make an attempt.

Phrases that everyone uses -- "avoid him like the plague"; "wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole"; "won't open that can of worms" -- are not cliches. They are figures of speech, idiomatic expressions that everyone knows and which we finish in our minds even if someone leaves them dangling:

That's water over the ...

Don't burn your ...

I don't have a dog in that ...

He's getting a little long in the ...

We're going to leave no stone ...

They become cliches -- a bad thing -- only when a writer or speaker treats them as if they were cool new expressions. It is the pretension and banality of the writer's use of them that turns an idiomatic expression into a cliche.

And even then, you can turn a cliche on its head and make fresh use of it, like this little stanza working with "Come hell or high water."

Came the flood, we stood together in high water,

Professor's son and farmer's lovely daughter,

Sandbagged and sturdy, doing rather well.

What broke us were the good times: They were hell.

In fact, one can say that a lot of what makes poetry work -- light or serious verse alike -- is playing with and against "cliches." The verse above relies on our knowledge of other phrases and expressions. "Sandbagged," "farmer's daughter," and "good times" are all meant to resonate with ironic associations that come up precisely because they have become idioms.

So this collection of idioms is useful as a reminder, a compendium. Where it falls apart, alas, is in the area of scholarship and clarity. The book's author, Christine Ammer, simply gets it wrong a shocking percentage of the time.

For instance, she refers to the phrase "all present and accounted for" as being "redundant -- if one is present one is also accounted for." She completely misses the point of the phrase, which is that it's possible not to be present and yet still be accounted for. No redundancy at all: The statement means that everyone who is supposed to be there is either physically present or their absence has been accounted for.

Her claimed origin for "famous last words" ignores the obvious origin: the death of General John Sedgwick in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on 9 May 1864. Confederate snipers were sending bullets toward the Union position, and the men were flinching. Sedgwick impatiently said, "I'm ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Whereupon he fell over dead with a bullet just under his right eye.

Those are "famous last words," and exactly define the way this idiom is used. We say "famous last words" immediately after someone has said what they confidently hope or believe to be true; it is almost interchangeable with the use of "knock on wood," except "f. l. w." adds the flavor of bitter irony.

But Ammer says that the idiom is used as a "satirical rejoinder to what the speaker considers a fatuous remark or easily refuted statement." This is simply wrong. The original statement is not "fatuous" or "easily refuted." It is wishful thinking or overconfident. If definitions mean anything at all, this is a crucial difference.

Then there's her take on the meaning and origin of "go downhill," as in "his fortunes went downhill from there" or "it's downhill from here." Here is Ammer's definition: "Although it would seem that going down a hill is easier than going up, downhill has meant a decline since the 1500s," and she gives the example "The monks had traveled swiftly on the downhill road of human corruption."

But she misses the obvious, that "downhill" in that sense refers to the impossibility of stopping a cart once it has started going downhill -- or even the difficulty of stopping when you're running down a hill. We all know the sinking feeling of seeing a shopping cart or stroller get away from someone in a parking lot with a steep slope -- it goes faster and faster and you can't catch up, so you can only wait to watch the inevitable collision or tip-over.

The ambiguity actually causes us some confusion. When we say, "Well, it's all downhill from here," we often have to correct the statement with an explanation of which "downhill" we mean. The statement could mean "We've done the hard part, getting to the top; from here on we can stop pedaling and coast!" but it could just as easily mean "Now that we've taken this foolish step, there's no going back or stopping; we're doomed."

How can you talk about the origin of this idiom without saying this?

Then she takes on "to have a bone to pick." Her definition is fine, but she actually makes the ridiculous assumption that it comes from dogs gnawing on a bone. But if that were the origin, the phrase would be "bone to gnaw," not "bone to pick."

She's forgetting the way meat was served in medieval England, before forks, when you had a knife and your fingers. Getting the meat off a bone required picking at it -- gripping any small fragment of meat with your fingers and then slicing it free with the knife. You could spend a lot of time picking at a bone, and the point of the phrase is that you're going after small meat at great effort. The speaker is saying, "I have a subject we need to discuss, but it isn't really very important."

Ammer thinks "la-la land" is the exact equivalent of "never-never land"; she completely misses the point that when you say someone is "in Never-Never Land," you're saying that they live in a wishful fantasy, deluded about what might or will happen, whereas when you say they're "in la-la land," you mean they're flat-out crazy in the here and now.

Then there's the ludicrous historical mistake when she says on page 256, "The noun lord was already present in Middle English about a.d. 900." How very strange -- the word lord was present in Middle English two hundred years before Middle English even began to exist!

(For those who don't know, Middle English was the language of Chaucer, a combination of Old English and Norman French, and it didn't begin to form until after the Norman conquest; in 900, English was what we now call Old English, and the word "lord" with that spelling did not exist.)

Just so you know, the Old English word for "lord" was "hlaford" from "hlaf-ward" meaning "loaf-keeper" -- the lord was the one who kept and shared the bread. And in Middle English -- which didn't become a literary language until about 1300 -- it was still hlaford, though the initial h was disappearing.

Then there's "shoot your bolt" or "shoot your wad." She says, correctly, that "bolt" comes from medieval crossbow archery, but then adds, "the archer who used up all his bolts at once, leaving him with none, was regarded as a fool." If this had been correct, the phrase would be "shoot all your bolts," and it isn't. What she doesn't know is that winding up a crossbow took more than a minute, and often two minutes or more.

So when you shot one bolt, the likelihood was that your next move was to get out your sword, because the enemy would be on you before you could reload. Therefore, in the open field, once you had shot your single bolt, you were done with the crossbow. That's what the phrase "He'd shot his bolt" comes from -- and still means.

To "shoot your wad," however, has shifted its meaning lately. It comes from musketry. You pour powder down the barrel of the gun, then ram a wad of thin cloth or cotton down after it with your ramrod. Only then do you push the lead ball down on top of it. In the heat of battle, it was easy to get ahead of yourself and, having rammed down the powder and wad, proceed to shoot the weapon without ever putting in the ball. Therefore you "shot your wad," or fired your weapon with no effect but noise.

That was the original meaning, but now that we don't load firearms that way, it has drifted to be identical in meaning with "shoot your bolt," meaning you've done what you can do and there's nothing left. Yet she misses the entire origin of "shoot your wad" and links the meaning to a wad of cash -- having gambled away all your cash, you have "shot your wad." This folk etymology seems to make sense except that it doesn't explain why the word "shoot" is in the expression. In other words, it explains nothing. Especially since you consider that the phrase originated before paper money.

Does any of this matter? Well, yes, I think so. I'm not a scholar, and if I'm picking up errors like these from random readings throughout the book, then just how reliable is she? The whole point of a book like this is not just to make a list, it's to tell us how enigmatic phrases in our language began and what they mean now and meant in the past.

But if the author of the book seems clueless on a fair percentage of her definitions, then how can you trust any of it?

This book was a good idea, and her list is a good long one. I just hope somebody comes back and does a good job with it. Ammer certainly did not.


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