Honest Abe, Japanese English and the Message Incoherence of the Gillard Campaign
When Abraham Lincoln leaned over his desk in 1862 to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, it is hard to imagine he paused to ask his aides whether the parchment upon which his Presidential imprimatur would set free the slaves was authentic or not.
“I hope,” he most certainly didn’t say, quiver poised, “this is the real stuff.”
This image came about after reading Sarah Vowell’s witty ode to Lincoln in The Partly Cloudy Patriot before bedtime last night, and because this morning I went to put on a shirt that claimed to be “authentic flannel”. It led me to think (a) Lincoln is a truly inspiring figure, underestimated outside the US, and (b) this shirt is a piece of shit.
Anything stamped authentic is not; it is the opposite. There is a dry-cleaner near where I have spent some time in Manhattan’s Upper West Side called “Ye Olde Dry Cleaner and Tailor”. Since “Ye Olde” is faux-Tudor English and the British didn’t start washing, let alone dry-cleaning, clothes until the late 1960’s, this is clearly a misnomer. It even lacks the implied irony of the “Ye Olde” that is attached to off-the-rack English-themed pubs of the type they build in shopping centres.
If something is authentic, saying it is not necessary. After viewing the Mona Lisa or visiting the Colosseum, their stunning and enduring beauty, their majesty and magic, would be severely undersold by the word.
In the mid-90’s, I used to ask audiences of Japanese parents, to whom I was addressing the subject “Why English Language Education in Japan is Useless”, “what is the first sentence you learned in English?” (I asked this in Japanese, of course. Refer back to speech title).
Without fail, they would respond, hundreds at once, as if part of a chorus:
This is a pen.
There you have it,” I would declare, as it dawned on them, murmurs and embarrassed laughter rising: “that is why you can’t speak English.”
One can live to 110 as a native English speaker, even a talkative one, without ever using the sentence, “this is a pen”. It is possible that, at some point along life’s journey, a blind person or a very stupid child holding a pen-shaped object may ask you the question “what is this?”, but most unlikely.
There are things that don’t need to be said — this is a pen — and there are things that, if needed saying, almost cannot be true — like “authentic”.
This is the problem with the Gillard campaign. Discuss.