Englishmen in cahoots
AN American friend writes to me on a matter of some finesse and delicacy and comes up in passing with the word ``cahoots.'' ``Do you know that American slang word meaning conspiracy?'' he inquires. Well, yes, even though I am an Englishman, I do. It is a word that has been not infrequently on my tongue, and my wife, a schoolteacher, says she uses it all the time. What I didn't realize was that it was claimed as an American word.Skip to next paragraph
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We Europeans tend to be proprietorial when it comes to verbal matters. To me it sounded like a Scot-tishism; after all, ``hoots'' is, so why not ``cahoots''? I admit my assumptions may have been colored by my minority circumstances - by my being married to a Scot, and living in Scotland. There is a fairly strong ... no, total ... feeling around these parts that anything worth its salt originated in Scotland or at least passed through, and that goes for language no less than porridge.
I found - such is the wonder of compromise - that we were both right, maybe. The experts agree that ``ca-hoots'' is (or are) unquestionably American. No less an authority than John R. Bartlett, author of the ``Dictionary of Americanisms,'' states that the word is ``used in the South and West to denote a company, or partnership.''
My dictionary suggests it may have been adopted from the French word cahute meaning ``a cabin, or poor hut.'' The connection is somewhat foggy, but I suppose a stretch of the imagination might suggest that conspiracies are often hatched in huts. So if we do accept that cahute is the original of ``cahoots,'' then the Scottish connection becomes unavoidable: The word cahute is firmly established in numerous books of reference as ``obsolete Scottish'' meaning ``a ship's cabin'' - and there's no telling what might not be cooked up, conspiratorially speaking, in one of those little sea-tossed dens of discovery.
All of which sets me off on the not entirely irrelevant question of languages. Every time I travel abroad I discover that people can't understand me and vice versa. The reason is that my education hasn't sufficiently extended beyond a mere try at their languages - and many of the people I meet speak English superbly. Naturally they like you to demonstrate how appallingly you speak their language first. It puts them at ease. Then they happily reveal their prowess in Shakespeare's mother tongue.
It is true, however, that there is a fascinating tendency now for the kind of English that Europeans learn to be American rather than British English. Only a few die-hards object. I met one recently in a rather unexpected place.
I had just spent a profitable hour thumbing through exhibition catalogs in the prints and drawings department of Berlin's Gem"aldegalerie under the watchful eye of a guard. When I asked him to sell me two of these catalogs, our lack of a shared language reduced us to hand signals. It was funny and worked surprisingly well, but it lacked subtlety.
THE Gem"aldegalerie has a staggering collection of paintings, which I had explored earlier that morning. Then I wandered into the adjacent museum of anthropology. Between Titian and bronzes from Benin, or Gainsborough and face masks from the northern coastal plain of Cameroon, lie countless leagues of cultural difference - or so one would expect. But on this occasion it seemed as if the so-called primitive and so-called sophisticated ir-resistibly branched from the same root known as ``art,'' from humankind's creativity, its will to make imagery speak, to exploit the expressiveness of materials that can be carved or pigmented.