Monthly Archives: May 2017

at the end of the day

At the end of the day, in the final analysis, when all is said and done, the bottom line is…

What?

It’s not as though discourse markers are some weird excrescence in English. We may not quite joint our sentences with them as much as Italian does with its dunque, comunque, and quindi (Italian, contrary to some stereotypes, is a language with discursive habits that are optimally suited to intellectual discourse – much more engagingly so than German, in my experience), but we still have lots of but, then, so, as a result, which means, and on up the formality scale to therefore and hence and in sum… and beyond into Latin.

And it’s not as though hackneyed metaphors are foreign to the language either. An enormous amount of our daily-use vocabulary traces back to physical references used for abstract concepts. Hackneyed originally referred to a horse worn out from being rented out all day, for instance – rental horses were hackneys, named after a town in England. Trace was first a literal reference to a path. Then there’s marker, scale, stereotype (a printing reference), joint, and all the terms we borrowed as abstract from Greek and Latin, where they began as literal references (metaphor meaning something carried beneath, for instance).

But hackneyed phrases aren’t just metaphorical discourse markers. They’re long metaphorical discourse markers, and they still flaunt their literal reference. We’ve generally forgotten the literal sense of hackneyed and stereotype, but we can’t miss the literal reference of a longer phrase made of common words. It’s in your face (so to speak). So people tire of them.

People have been tiring of them for a long time. George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (a hypocritical, xenophobic, classist clarion call for cranks, but not without its points) inveighs against this kind of bombast; two examples of “flyblown metaphors” he cites are “explore every avenue” and “leave no stone unturned.” Both of them are indeed flyblown, as it were. So is flyblown, but it’s a single word and so slips in like a quiet party crasher in a decent suit. (Bombast has lost its original reference entirely, but that’s not Orwell’s word here, it’s mine.)

Orwell didn’t mention “at the end of the day,” and it’s likely he didn’t have it in mind. Although the phrase in its literal use has been around for a long time, its summative use wasn’t especially common by his time. Before that, it slid in (hmm) very gradually, sometimes still having literal reference but also perhaps a more metaphorical sense – here’s a quote from William Cobbett, writing in 1806 but paraphrasing a speech from 1773: “that common fame, it was true, might set the enquiry on foot, but could never have sufficient ground for accusation; that is might be a very good breakfast, but at the end of the day would prove to be a very bad supper.” Other written texts using the phrase refer to the parable of the labourers, in Matthew 20, where Jesus talks of day labourers being hired at different times of the day but all getting the same pay at the end of the day. This no doubt had some influence on its occasional use in a metaphorical or at least partly metaphorical sense.

But the tired, sun-bleached (hmm) use that irritates some people so much first started spreading in the 1970s, it seems, and really took off (hmm) in the 1980s. Somehow some people – possibly more at first in England, and certainly among the moneyed business and law set – came to have the phrase stuck in their heads in such a way that it offered itself up when they reached for something equivalent to “when all is said and done.”

It may not be a coincidence that Les Miserables was a West End (and, after that, Broadway) hit starting in 1985, given that it included this song:

It didn’t invent the phrase. It didn’t even invent the figurative use of the phrase; it wouldn’t have been very effective if the phrase hadn’t already been established – it would have been just confusing. (The French original, by the way, was “Quand un jour est passé” – same rhythm, similar sense, but literally ‘when a day is done’.) But it may well have served as a vector for it, amplifying its popularity.

That’s not the song that comes to my mind first when I hear “at the end of the day,” though. I first hear this one, by the Canadian group Great Big Sea:

It’s not an originator and it’s not as widely influential. But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s all your state of mind. What’s just vivid enough to stick? And if metaphors aren’t vivid and sticky, well, then vivid and sticky might as well not be metaphors.

panini

I had a panini for lunch today, which, as always, set me thinking about grammar.

You’re probably thinking “Oh! Because panini comes from Italian, where it’s a plural, and panino is the singular!” You may also be thinking “He used panini as a singular. What an ignoramus.”

In fact, panini makes me think about grammar because of Panini – which is more properly written Pāṇini (which means the “ah” takes twice as long to say as it otherwise would, and the first n is said with the tongue tip farther back in the mouth; also, since it’s not written with a Ph, the P is closer to an English “b”). He was a Sanskrit grammarian; he lived in India sometime before the Buddha was born (and thus also sometime before Socrates and everyone after that), probably around the 6th century BCE. You could almost say he was the Sanskrit grammarian, though others came after. Panini wrote the authoritative manual on Sanskrit grammar. It is a concise work, effectively an algorithm. It’s an exercise in figuring out a natural phenomenon, and at the same time it’s what computer dorks might call an API (basically a set of instructions on how to make a certain kind of thing work). He observed something, figured out as best he could how it worked, and set down as elegant a description of it as he could, which thereby became a means of standardizing its production in formal contexts. I don’t want to go on too long here; this Scroll.in article on him is worth your 5 minutes to learn more.

Do I think of him every time I see panini because I’m a pretentious self-regarding twerp who is mighty pleased with himself for knowing something to do with Sanskrit? Of course not. I mean, I am a pretentious etc., but the reason I think of him every time is that I knew Panini as his name for years before I ever saw it as a name of a food item. I learned about him in university in the mid-1980s; paninis (or panini, if you prefer) didn’t encroach on my sphere of existence until the late 1980s or early 1990s. Our firstborn impressions of a lexeme have birthright: they get the full baby albums and all the brand new toys and clothes. The later impressions get the hand-me-downs.

So. First the Sanskrit, then the sandwich. When it showed up in North America, the average Anglophone saw panini and took it for the singular. People who know some Italian say “No, panino is the singular,” but they might as well be saying “No, it’s Panini’s monster. Panini is the one who created it.” Ask yourself how often you see biscotto or graffito. Even I, who know enough Italian to pass a graduate proficiency test in it (it was one of my two for my PhD, the other being French), seldom make a point of using the Italian singular. It would almost be like asking for a wedgie instead of a sandwich.

Look, Panini saw grammar as a means to understanding the divine, and thus perhaps good grammar as next to godliness, but he still worked with the data he had before him in the state it was in. He didn’t, for example, try to reverse sandhi. And I won’t try to reverse the sandwich. In Italian, after all, panino just means ‘small bread’ or ‘bread-ette’ and that’s often all they mean when they say it (though they can mean the sandwich too). If you’re going to be a purist, get that meat and cheese out of it.

And if you think someone who takes a word that is one thing grammatically in the source language and makes it another thing grammatically in English is an ignoramus, allow me to remind you that ignoramus is, in Latin, a verb in the first-person plural indicative, meaning ‘we don’t know’ (it comes to us by way of a character named Ignoramus in a 17th-century play of the same name). And you have just used it as a singular noun, sans critique. You’ll have to eat your words.