Friday, October 07, 2011

Wasps and Immortals: a weak tragedy

The wasp that stung the hand that grabbed the handle of the panLast Sunday I reached into my kitchen sink to withdraw a frying pan, and was stung by this wasp as my hand closed over it. The pain was immediate and head-rattling. I don’t think any part of the stinger was left in my palm but it was an extraordinarily effective attack, even if a pyrrhic one.

I applied some sting ointment and took an antihistamine, but I still had throbbing from the end of my pinky to my elbow for four or five hours.

I made an appointment with my doctor to get a tetanus jab, something I seem to have missed renewing since I started gallivanting around the globe in 1998. I had a kind of painful pins and needles for about three days, but it had largely subsided by the time I saw the doctor.

I hadn’t paid him a visit in nine months and some of my patient records had vanished in the meantime, so he took some of my personal history again. “And what is it you do exactly?”

- Um (this is hard enough in English)

”A difficult question, no?” (he smiles)

- inactif? (a wider smile from him) un ecrivain, no … (inspiration) … un immortel!

At this he threw back his head and laughed loudly, then composed himself and bowed his head in mock-respect. I don’t think he’s going to forget my patient history ever again.

Les immortels are the forty members of the French Academy who for nearly 400 years have safeguarded the French language against English incursions. So severe is this defence, that even old French words like computer which have re-entered the common tongue via English have been supplanted with new terms like ordinateur. In French, email becomes courriel but whenever I use that word no one seems to know what it means (except perhaps in civil service contexts where les adresses e-mails  are published for the public, but no one ever responds to them). Brent tells me that mail is generally used in preference to email or courriel.

My claim to a seat amongst les immortels is quite clear (#20). It’s also less onerous than being one of King Leonidas’ Spartan immortals, although their uniforms are spunkier. Perhaps a better classical Greek reference that would have described the defenders of the language is the Chorus from Aristophanes play The Wasps. In that story, the chorus are the old jurors defending the ways of custom.

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