It happened again. I was watching "Downton Abbey," coasting happily along a country lane in the Crawley's early 20th Century English world, when one of the characters jerked me sharply back to the present with a phrase that sounded oddly inappropriate in her mouth.
Lady Mary Crawley lightly suggested to a suitor that he try "being in the moment," for all the world as if as if she were a practitioner of Buddhist meditation. Lady Mary might instead have quoted Robert Herrick, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," but that wasn't exactly the gist of what she was saying. Her message was not "Get it while you can," anticipating Janice Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, but rather an allusion to mindfulness. It seemed awfully Zen of her. In that instant, my disbelief, up until then delightfully suspended, came crashing down, and had to be propped back up again with costumes and historical references and warming pans and stove blacking before I was able to get back into the story.
It is not always so jarring when a character on "Downton Abbey" uses a contemporary phrase. In an interview on National Public Radio, linguist Ben Zimmer took issue, for example, with one of the girls in the scullery using the expression "I'm just saying." Even though "I'm just saying," has become common parlance in recent years, anyone speaking English could have used the phrase at any time; it flows naturally enough.
In the second series of "Downton," during World War I, the expression "Step on it," meaning "hurry up," is used by Lord Grantham to his chauffeur as they get into Grantham's "motorcar." Zimmer took issue with this usage in the NPR interview, stating that although the expression was then in use, it was American, not British. Zimmer said that another Americanism of the early 1910s, "step on her tail," brought to mind the idea of stepping on a cat's tail, causing it to jerk forward.
Still. When someone tells a driver to step on it, he clearly means step on the accelerator pedal. The reference is so simple that it doesn't seem out of place coming from Lord Grantham as he climbs into his automobile.
"He has a lot on his plate." Now that's a different story. I suppose anyone could have said that at any time as well, but the phrase has become such a buzz word in recent years that it sounded inappropriate to me when I heard it uttered at Downton Abbey. The Crawleys might as well be talking about upside down mortgages or twerking around their new pig sty. I'm just saying.
All right, I am now turning off the television set. Might as well be in the moment. Be here now.
Here in the Adirondacks, we have plenty of expressions leftover from the olden days. One thing I find myself saying lately is "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas." Visitors who came up for Valentine's Day and Presidents Day weekends were rewarded with white powder snow, easy to brush off one's motorcar, even when it is piled up more than a foot. People have told me they enjoyed being in a cabin during a snowstorm, skiing downhill and cross-country, and sledding at the Ausable club-where they were the only ones present-and the Keene Community Center, which was packed with little townies careening down the slope and swigging hot chocolate.
This is the picturesque kind of snow we want, and for some reason expect, in December, even though we are more likely to get it in February and March.
Is this what the old-timers call sugar snow? I swear, Adirondackers have almost as many words for snow as the Inuit famously use in their vocabulary. Corn snow, poor man's fertilizer ...
Despite the cold weather, we have been experiencing, the term sugar snow reminds us that sugaring season is almost upon us. Cold nights, warm days-that's the formula for flowing maple sap. As Rivermede Farmer Rob Hastings says-as I quote every year - "It's not over till the frogs start to sing." Which carries us into spring. Yes, spring will come. Eventually.
Which reminds me of another expression: "Tell that to the Marines." I was surprised to come upon this phrase the other day while reading "The Prime Minister," an English novel by Anthony Trollope, published in 1876.
Have a good week.