Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Of Carborundum, Sears, and Santa!

Port Townsend, Today. Looking over the comments I've received to recent articles, a Canadian reader, and prolific writer in his own right, Trackside Treasure, passed along a well known phrase, "Illegitimi non carborundum," commonly understood to mean, "Don't let the bastards wear you down."

I remember first hearing that phrase "Illegitimi non carborundum" when I was a budding wordsmith writer/video producer at Freightliner back in the early 1970's.

It came on the heels of me coming within moments of being responsible for shutting down all of Freightliner's Portland Oregon manufacturing facilities, affecting more than 2,000 employees.

The action that precipitated the near event horizon was all quite innocent, but the ramifications were overwhelming.

Thankfully, a watchful supervisor overheard me on the phone, caught my mistake, and headed off certain disaster.

Later, as I was fielding angry comments from my co-workers, who suggested that I explore methods of committing suicide, my savior said "Illegitimi non carborundum - don't let the bastards wear you down!"

When the crisis had passed, being an inquisitive wordsmith, I dissected the phase to learn it's deeper meaning. Being Latin, it had to have "deeper meaning." What I discovered was total gobbledygook!

Reconstructing my '70's analysis, here is what I discovered:

According to Urban Legend, the phrase originated during World War II. Lexicographer Eric Partridge attributes it to British army intelligence very early in the war using the plural dative/ablative illegitimis. Moreover, General Joseph Stilwell used the phase to motivate his troops during WWII.

  • Illegitimi. Illegitimis is the dative plural of illegitimus - "illegitimate." The gerundive in Latin correctly takes the dative to denote the agent. Illegitimus could conceivably mean "bastard" in Latin, but was not the usual word for it. Follett World-Wide Latin Dictionary gives "nothus homo" for bastard of known father, and "spurius" for bastard of unknown father.
  • non. Latin, meaning not.
  • Carborundum. The trademark for silicon carbide, an inorganic compound formed into grinding discs, discovered by E.G. Acheson; for which he received a patent in 1891.
This mixing up fake Latin from English words, "Illegitimi non carborundum," is called "macaronics." So while the phrase means absolutely nothing, I appreciate the spirit and intent by the commentator!

"Getting ready for Christmas?"

Not really, just me and the dawg. But it wasn't always that way. I can remember hot debates about "Where are we going for Christmas?" "We did Christmas last year!" "Well WE open OUR gifts on Christmas Eve, NOT Christmas morning!"

My first real memory of Christmas was the Christmas of 1951. We moved into a brand new home in West Seattle that year. I would have been 8, my sister 4.

Deciding we were getting to the ages we needed separate bedrooms, my Dad undertook construction of my den in the basement. It was spacious, and I loved it.

Since we had an oil-fired furnace, the question became one of "How was Santa going to make his deliveries?"

Well I think by then I was well aware that Dad was Santa. No mystery how the presents arrived from Sears, Roebuck, down on First Avenue!

[Ed Note: Did you know the founder of Sears was a railroad man? Richard Warren Sears was a railroad station agent on the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad in North Redwood, Minnesota when he received an impressive shipment of watches from a Chicago jeweler, which were unwanted by a local jeweler.

So Sears purchased them himself, sold the watches for a tidy profit to other station agents up and down the line, and then ordered more for resale. Soon he started a business selling watches through mail order catalogs.]

"Santa Claus" always placed a big sock on our bedpost. When we awoke, that was the first causality of the morning. There were small presents, hard candy, nuts, and a Mandarin Orange, wrapped in orange paper.

Do they still individually wrap Mandarin Oranges in orange paper anymore?

At any rate, I lay awake waiting for Santa to deliver my sock. I think it was the Christmas of 1952. I saw the basement light come on under my doorway.

I began my well-rehearsed "feigning sleep" as Santa crept into my room and hooked the sock over the bedpost at the foot of my bed.

Once the coast was clear, I turned on my lamp, and lay the sock out, eager to explore the contents.

Then Nature called.

So I carefully laid the sock out on my bed, noting a nice sized box inside, and quietly ascended the stairs to the bathroom.

We were taught to wait for the water to get hot before washing our hands before leaving the bathroom. People have been known to die of old age, waiting for the water to get hot!

Finally, I was able to get my hands washed in hot water, and quietly return to my downstairs bedroom, eager to expore the contents of my Christmas Sock.

Which was gone!

Made for great humor around the breakfast table, as I was re-united with my Christmas sock.

As I recall, that Christmas marked my graduation from Revell plastic models, like the Sikorsky Rescue Helicopter HH-19B, which was my favorite. Plastic models were a mess to construct. The Testors cement seemed to melt the plastic. Models turned out horrid. On my Model T, you had to heat a knife on the stove, and press it against the end of the axle to melt the plastic to keep the wheels on. I invariably messed up and fused the wheel to the axle.

Now I am old enough to tackle a balsa wood model. The Consolidated Vultee B-24 Liberator was first attempt. And last. Took some time and effort - sanding and whatnot - to put the wood model together!

I still have the booklet containing the history of the B-24 that came with the model!

As I recall, my aeroplane did not come out so well, hence, I did not replicate the look on that kid's face ...

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