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When you are old & gray & full of Paraprosdakians…

Bill Meredith

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream….
    William Butler Yeats

(Sept, 2013) The lines quoted above are the beginning of a poem Yeats wrote about a woman he had loved and lost in his youth. I think it’s a very good poem… it’s on the internet, it you want to read all three verses… but lately, it seems those first three lines are about me. I don’t sit by a fire on these summer evenings, but the rest of it fits pretty well… old, gray, sleeping a lot, and daydreaming about things that seem, on first glance, to have nothing to do with each other.

A friend who shares my love of quirky things recently sent me a list of quotations called Paraprosdakians. These are sayings in which the second part is either unrelated, or oddly related, to the first part. It was a word I had never heard before, but I knew what to do with it; after all, in this business such things happen all the time, and there are rules to go by. First, when you meet a word like that, you must stop and look at it, and try to pronounce it aloud so you can get your tongue around it and drop it casually into a conversation the next chance you get. Second, you should look up its definition and origin, in case the person you’re talking to gives you a strange look. Third, you should commit some examples to memory, in case the previous two steps are followed by a stunned silence.

I have reached the age where my speech occasionally slurs even on small words, so I knew I was in trouble as soon as I tried Step One. It took at least a dozen tries before I pronounced "Paraprosdakian" without tripping over it, and then I found that I tended to forget some of the syllables after a few minutes without practicing. Step Two was also unrewarding; the word was not in either of my dictionaries, so I had to resort to the internet. There, I found that it is not in the latest version of the Oxford English Dictionary either; it seems that someone just made it up, using a bunch of Greek-sounding roots to make it appear venerable and dignified. Some of the classic examples occurred by accident; for instance, in the 1880s the Rev. W. A. Spooner once gave a fiery temperance sermon in which he thundered from the pulpit, "Work is the curse of the drinking class!" Satirists favor paraprosdakians, such as "Some people cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go." (Oscar Wilde) Comedians, of course, love them… "I’ve had a wonderful evening. This wasn’t it." (Groucho Marx) Even biographers use them: "Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be." (Simone Signoret)

The trouble with being retired is that you’re not working any more. Thus, when you run across a new word like Paraprosdakian, you can’t just put it down and forget about it, because you no longer have the excuse that you’re too busy to fool with such silliness. That’s what happened to me when I found one by Winston Churchill. He said, "I'm supposed to respect my elders, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to find one now." I suppose he had memorized the Ten Commandments as a child; and I did too, although I was a couple of generations younger than Sir Winston. I’ll admit that I can no longer recite the Commandments in their proper order; but because I memorized them as a child, I still know what they meant. But now, when I look around, rarely do I find anyone who memorized them at all… or, for that matter, anything else. Times have changed.

When I began teaching in 1957, I had just finished my Master’s degree, and I was pretty cocky about it; I thought I had learned all of the biology I needed to know. Before the first month had passed, I realized I was wrong, so on the advice of a friend I subscribed to Scientific American. The articles in it kept me aware of new discoveries, so I saved them, and when I retired I could not bear to end my subscription. The result is that I now have 668 copies stored in the basement, in my shop, in my office, and scattered elsewhere about the house, and a new one arrives each month. Needless to say, this has not escaped my wife’s notice, and every time she encounters the term "downsizing" on the news or in an AARP ad, she tactfully calls it to my attention. Her idea of tact does not always agree with mine, but I have to admit that she has a point; so last week I finally threw away two copies.

That was a traumatic experience, like saying goodbye to old friends, and I could not do it without leafing through them one last time. One of the features I always enjoyed was a column that recounts the events that were big news in science 50, 100, and 150 years ago; and the one I picked up described a heat wave that occurred in New York City in July of 1911. In those days the city Health Department was responsible for removing dead horses from the streets, and in that one week, 1026 horses died, an average of 171 each day. The writer observed that those horses were worth over half a million dollars, a staggering amount in those days, and he noted that such a fund would pay for enough electric vehicles to replace all the horses.

Times were changing even then. The Industrial Revolution actually started over 100 years earlier, but the start was slow and gradual; by the turn of the 20th century, it was beginning to grow explosively. Power plants were being built as fast as possible to provide the electricity to run newly-invented trains and streetcars so all those horses could be replaced, and oil wells and refineries were mushrooming all over the country to power automobiles. That, in turn, demanded new roads, and all the changes that went with them… population shifts, urbanization, mega-farms… all those things that people of my age lived through.

My grandparents were born in the decade following the Civil War, before the invention of telephones and electric lights. My parents arrived about the same time as airplanes and radios; television was probably the biggest change in their lives (computers existed by the time they died, but they weren’t much aware of them). When I was growing up, we still farmed with horses until I was about 15, and I must have been in college before I ever received a shot of penicillin. The rate of change keeps speeding up, and old folks tend to die off before they can adapt. Grandpa drove a car, but he never quite felt at ease in it, I learned to use a computer in 1970 but still would rather write with a fountain pen. Someone told me today that children no longer learn cursive writing in school.

Grandpa told me stories of the Good Old Days, and I’ve told my grandchildren my version of the same. Both of us looked back wistfully at times that were not as easy and carefree as we made them sound, but we loved them because we felt we still had some measure of control over our lives. Ah, yes. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith