January 18, 2015
Having seen the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease up close — having lived with them actually, we don’t go out of our way to see the subject dramatized. The other night, however, we were glad we stumbled on Iris, a 2001 movie starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Bonneville. This film is based on the life of Iris Murdoch, a prominent British novelist and philosopher in the second half of the twentieth century. While she was a young woman teaching at Oxford, Murdoch fell in love with another Oxford academic, John Bayley, and eventually married him. It was what Puccini’s librettists might have called “a strange harmony of contrasts. Winslet was confident, high-spirited, articulate, and promiscuous, and Bayley was awkward, stuttering, shy, and virgin.
Their story, based on Bayley’s written accounts, is told in turns by flashbacks to the tumult of their early life together and a portrayal of the gradual deterioration of the elderly Iris’s mind. At the center of the story is John Bayley’s enduring love for this woman, even when her dementia frightens him and strains his patience. Dench and Winslet play the elder and younger Iris, and Broadbent and Bonneville play the elder and younger Bayley. This casting was inspired, because in both cases the premise that we are watching the same people at different stages of their lives is convincing. The quality of the performances is reflected by the fact that, among many accolades, Jim Broadbent won an Oscar and Judi Dench and Kate Winslet were nominated. Why Hugh Bonneville wasn’t nominated I can’t imagine. Those who are familiar with him in vehicles such as Belle and Downton Abbey will learn something about his range by watching him in this film. Incidentally, fans of Downton Abbey and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might be pleased to see Penelope Wilton’s performance in a significant supporting role in Iris.
March 20, 2013
When we were watching episodes of Downton Abbey on a DVD, we turned on the English subtitles, because we had trouble understanding a couple of the actors — particularly Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow and Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason.
It turned out that while some of our difficulty with the dialogue had to do with the one actor’s mumbling and the other one’s accent, some of it also had to do with the vocabulary itself — British terms that we did not know.
Most of us are familiar with terms like “lorry,” “loo,” and “lift,” but we saw others in the captions that we had never heard before.
It was to be expected that the English used in Britain and the English used in the United States would evolve differently, but I learned recently that that didn’t happen only over time but was done deliberately, on our side of the ocean, soon after the American Revolution.
That’s what Paul Dickson reports in his book Words from the White House, which is a compilation of words and phrases that either were either coined or made popular by presidents and other prominent Americans.
According to Dickson, an 18th century sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, was that Americans had to craft for themselves a language that was distinct from the “king’s English.”
Webster was so confident that this goal could be achieved that he wrote in 1806 that “In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people than all the other dialects of the language.”
Part of the process by which language evolves is “neologizing” — that is, inventing words or phrases from whole cloth.
Dickson writes that the word “neologize” was itself neologized by Jefferson in 1813 in a letter to John Adams.
So Theodore Roosevelt, who — for my money — is disproportionately represented in this book, was neologizing when he invented the term “pussyfooter,” and his distant cousin FDR was doing the same when he created the useful word “iffy.”
Some presidents have been accused of using non-standard terms, not because they were being inventive but because they didn’t know any better.
In this regard, for instance, Dickson mentions Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush.
Harding has often been ridiculed for his 1920 campaign promise of a “return to normalcy,” but Dickson points out that the word “normalcy” had been already in use in several fields, including mathematics.
Harding’s innovation was to give the term a political meaning — and, the author reminds us, it worked.
The second Bush — who could be hard on English — was kidded mercilessly for his used of the term “decider” which he applied to himself when the press asked him about calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”) Dickson gives Bush credit for coining this word, but apparently the author didn’t check a dictionary: that word was around before George Bush was president, meaning exactly what he used it to mean.