All My Eye and Betty Martin

My old friend Chris, a veteran Aussie newspaperman, sometimes used an expression that was new to me but familiar to generations of British sailors, “All my eye and Betty Martin,” meaning something that’s complete nonsense. And, as it happened, we were colleagues at a workplace where he had (too) much occasion to use it.

When I asked him where the expression came from, he was uncharacteristically vague. Perhaps something about the navy, he’d half-heartedly suggested. Was Betty Martin some actress who’d captured sailors’ fancy, maybe like a British version of Betty Grable? After more than a few stories, most of which I believed to be all my eye and Betty Martin (and I think you know what I’m talking about here), I realized I’d have to find out for myself.

As it turns out, all my eye and Betty Martin has something of a cult following among linguistic historians.

The expression appears in a Coleridge poem from 1851:

“All my I! all my I!
He’s a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin!”

Linguists cite this as evidence it was already in usage as popular slang by 1851. Indeed, it appears in 1781 edition of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, of course), referring to it as “a sea phrase Admiral Jemm [actually, Royal Navy admiral James Burney] frequently makes use of.”

In his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), E. Cobham Brewer tells this story, which connects the Royal Navy to the expression:

“[A] Jack Tar [British sailor] went into a foreign church, where he heard someone uttering these words—Ah! mihi, bea’te Martine (Ah! Grant me, Blessed Martin.). On giving an account of his adventure, [the sailor] said he could not make much out of it, but it seemed to him very like “All my eye and Betty Martin.”

Sounds plausible enough to me because, let’s face it, mangling other tongues is part of what British sailors traditionally do in foreign lands, is it not?

There is a Latin prayer, Ora pro mihi, beate Martine (“Pray for me, blessed Martin.”), which might refer to St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of innkeepers and reformed drunkards. Very appropriate for old salts of any nation.

Taking this walk through the history of expressions just a bit further, some have suggested that Betty Martin doesn’t come from beate Martine at all but, rather, beata mater, Blessed Mother. In other words, the prayer the old sailor misheard as an entreaty to the patron saint of reformed drunks may have been the request for the blessing of the Virgin Mary.

And why that misunderstanding resulted in an expression for nonsense that has lasted over the seas and centuries, I cannot even begin to guess.

Nostalgia By Waves

I was driving home on a recent rainy Saturday night. The city’s downtown holiday lights were going up. Car and pedestrian traffic was heavy, manic and unaware; just a dress rehearsal, of course, for the nightmare weeks coming after the Thanksgiving observance, but tense and nerve-jangling nonetheless. When I popped on the car’s radio to drown out yelling people and blaring horns, I heard the strains of a Celtic song, Scottish or Irish, I did not know for certain. The sound of the fiddle, so characteristic of Celtic music, so beautiful, yet so full of sadness, washed over me with a wave of familiarity, as if I was actually at the ceilidh where the recording took place.

The ache I was feeling has a name; it’s called nostalgia.

Nostalgia comes, as so many of our words do, from the Greek – a combination of nostos, meaning “homecoming,” and algos, meaning “ache.” So, nostalgia is, literally, an ache of longing for a time or place that has sentimental weight, like home.

When I post photos of long-gone San Francisco (e.g., Playland-at-the-Beach) on this blog or to my facebook account, as I am sometimes wont to do, that’s an expression of my nostalgia for a hometown that doesn’t exist anymore in the way it did when I was a kid. Funny, then, that I would feel the same ache from Celtic music but feel it, I did.

Now, I’ve never been to Ireland, and I’ve been to Scotland only once (loved the visit, by the way) but I would never consider either place home. Nor would I consider myself Celtic. My people are from the eastern Mediterranean. Nor did I grow up listening to Celtic music as a kid. It’s something I enjoy hearing from time to time, and that’s about it. For some reason, from penny whistles to crying fiddles to skirling bagpipes, Celtic music does something to me emotionally. [A side note: for the most part, I’d still rather listen to other stuff. I’m not insane.]

My nostalgic connection to Celtic music is somewhat similar to the feelings I have for Washington, DC and North Carolina in the spring and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia in the fall, but at least I actually lived in those places and still have actual friends and memories I closely and warmly attach to each.

No, as I think more about it, this may all be traced to the particularities and peculiarities of my family history.

It was almost a century ago that all four of my grandparents left (or were forcefully uprooted from) all the people and places they held most dear in the world. They came to a wholly unfamiliar place, amidst mostly unfamiliar people and customs. So, as American as they became over time – and they did, in fact come to be more American than Greek  by the ends of their lives – they still must have been mightily torn by the competition bewteen the pull of their old land and the push of the new.

Is this familial inheritance the reason that, even though I dearly love my hometown, I so often look over my shoulder at other places and fondly remember the people of my long-gone past? Is it the reason music that’s really not my own sometimes feels so close to the bone?

Infidelity, Votes-for-Gifts and Secession

A Matter of Scale

There was much hand-wringing this week over issues of “national importance,” like (1) a former general’s marital infidelities, (2) whether the president won re-election by the inappropriate giving of gifts and, oh right, (3) the question of states seceding from the Union.

1. Honestly, I feel sorry for David Petreus. He’s obviously smart but he also seems like a very sad little man.

What started this “grand revelation” wasn’t some backroom, dark-ops way to protect the president from embarrassing revelations about Benghazi. That’s just right-wing nonsense-dreams. This happened because an overly “zealous” FBI agent wanted to have sex with a comely (albeit married) woman he knows, and when his text to her of himself shirtless didn’t do the trick (BTW, does it ever?), he went outside bureau rules and uncovered evidence of (my heavens) an extramarital affair involving the former general and current CIA director.

I don’t happen to think CIA Director is a position that requires some special level of moral authority based on leading an unblemished personal life. If it did, no one would be able to occupy it. Ever. Same goes, I think, for generals. I don’t think about their personal lives and I don’t want to. I don’t care that Petreus is married or what he had for breakfast or that he had an extramarital affair. I care that, as a general, he figured a way to get American combat troops out of Iraq. I care that he faithfully supported the administrations he served. I care that he seemed to do all the hard and thankless jobs other, less capable people kept dumping on him, to the best of his ability.

This continuing national preoccupation with the sexual behavior of public figures is embarrassing, unhealthy and, I believe, unintentionally reveals a twisted pathology of those who most strongly call for resignations, humiliations and punishments.

For no good reason, Petreus had to resign; it’s our loss.

2. Did Barack Obama promise “gifts” to potential voters as a direct inducement to improperly get their votes, or are Mitt Romney and certain fringe Republicans just sore losers who still can’t believe they lost the election?

The question is rhetorical but there’s still an answer: sore losers. End of story.

3. Secession? Seriously? Your guy doesn’t get elected president and, right away, it’s “I’m leaving this party.”

Let’s look at this “firestorm” for exactly what it is. Led by an all-out effort in (Surprise!) Texas, the online secession petitions have gathered something over 700,000 signatures (at writing time). That’s a whopping 0.022 percent of the US population. My hand to God, I think I could get that many people to sign a petition making French toast our national bird. Let’s compare that percentage to another small part of the country’s population that was (in contrast to secession) completely ignored recently, namely the number of our fellow citizens who voted for Gary Johnson (the Libertarian candidate) in the election – about 1 million votes, or 1.2 percent of the votes cast in the states in which he appeared on the ballot.

So, is this an anemic stunt or a failed but serious movement?

If it’s intended as a stunt, it isn’t interesting, it isn’t funny, it isn’t going anywhere and, therefore, isn’t worth people’s attention.

If it’s intended as a serious movement, I find it insane beyond my words. Consider our history. The last time we had a serious secession movement, it was settled by the costliest, bloodiest, most damaging conflict in our country’s history. And as I’ve said before to friends, that is rain we do not want to call down lightly. Rational Americans do not want to call it down again, period.

But, secessionists, don’t give up hope completely. If I ever were to compile a list of states I’d happily bid a fond adieu (Note to separatist Texans: That’s French for “see ya later.”), congratulations, Texas, you would be at my list’s very tip top.

Texas #1!!!

(Don’t worry, Arizona, you can make it; just try a little harder.)

Steinbeck Country

The other day, I found myself shooting south from San Francisco, down California’s Highway 101. Once through the Bay Area, past San Jose, the look of the drive changes significantly.

No more high-tech corporate headquarters campuses. No overly cute billboards. No knots of traffic. Not a Prius in sight, only trucks. Nothing you’d see in the driveway of a suburban house. These are working trucks.

And so, I entered the Salinas Valley, the place Steinbeck brought to life in ‘East of Eden,’ ‘Of Mice and Men,’ and many other of his stories. The closer I got to my destination, the pretty little city of Gonzales, the more I came to recall the opening of ‘East of Eden.’

     The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

.     I remember my childhood names for the grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer – and what trees and seasons smelled like – how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

My window was down on this chilly November morning, and I could smell those smells too. And I was transported to a time when a young John Steinbeck lived and played and grew, like the trees and the grasses, among the green fields of the Salinas Valley.

A Last Gasp

At one time, frenzied throngs of them filled the streets and frightened the establishment, although they always seemed more circus than menace to me.

They waved signs with nonsensically and humorously over-inflamed rhetoric (I mean, really, who can take the threat of domestic Communism seriously these days?) and carried a rag-bag mix of symbols from a wildly inacurate Disney-fied version of our historical past. Tri-corner hats and powdered wigs. The famous “Dont Tread on Me” Gadsden flag. Historical re-creation (and more modern) firearms carried in plain sight at public events. Unintentionally hilarious Biblical misquotes and anachronistic appeals to “traditional family” values.

“We want our country back!”

They stacked and thuggishly hijacked public meetings. They prevented the business of government from happening. They shouted down elected officials. They browbeat and coerced shaky-legged politicians with unsubstantiated accusations and seemingly limitless vitriol. They would not be talked down, placated or reasoned with.

The major political party with which they affiliated bowed to their will because they could turn out the votes like nobody’s business and, well, there was also all the money. Freakishly radical candidates were selected in primaries that came to resemble the stilted surrealism of a Dali painting mixed with the broad caricatures and pre-scripted inevitability of Kabuki theater.

“Restore America!”

Their anger had been purposefully fed, of course, by a centralized, well-financed and coordinated effort of white multi-billionaires who did not want their cozy-happy era of unchecked dominance to pass.

However, after all the red-faced screaming (not to mention the expenditure of untold billions), the sound and fury has, indeed, come to signify nothing. Our country’s demographics are, in fact, our destiny. The Christian church in America is shrinking and the electorate will not be majority white for long. Those are the dead-certain facts.

Even the scale of money used in this past campaign can only buy so much, it turns out. With this election, we may have finally seen its concrete limits.

The Tea Party, and the vision of America it represents, is in its final death spasms. And there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.

Good riddance.