Englishmen in cahoots

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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.

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.''

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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.

The sensitivity and craftsmanship of the artifacts were set out before the visitor with great clarity. My only regret was that many (though not all) of the galleries provided information in no other language than German. I put a question to a woman guard who spoke as little English as I did German. So I settled for the foreignness of the experience and enjoyed the visual communication of this magnificent collection. As I came to the last gallery, I spotted a glass door through which items from the European sculpture museum were visible.

``Geschlossen!'' rapped out a man's voice behind me, and I nearly jumped to attention. He followed up with a sentence of imperative German I couldn't understand.

``Oh, er - ya - sorry,'' I said meekly. ``It's shut, yes, I see.''

As I turned and walked past him he said, much more quietly, ``You are English, I think.''

``Yes,'' I said. ``How did you guess?''

``Are you visiting Berlin or living here?'' he asked.

``Visiting.... You speak extremely good English,'' I said admiringly.

``That,'' he said, ``is because I am English.''

He looked at me a moment, enjoying the effect of a statement he knew I didn't expect. ``Don't say it too loudly, though; my boss thinks I'm German.... I do have German citizenship. I've lived here for 20 years.... I don't get much opportunity to speak English. Where are you from?''

``Glasgow.''

``Whereabouts?''

``South of the river - Pollokshields.''

``I was there during the war. Yes, I know Pollokshields.'' I sensed a certain wistfulness in him standing guard in the middle of all those African carvings.

``It's very nice to speak English,'' he said. ``I don't get much opportunity. Of course,'' he added, ``people even in Britain don't speak good English anymore. It's all those Americanisms creeping in, such as `Be good' instead of `Goodbye.' Of course, we get a lot of Americans coming through here. I tell them they don't speak English properly at all. They protest, so I ask them this: Which is correct grammatically - to say, `The yolk of an egg IS white or the yolk of an egg ARE white?'''

I must have looked blank.

``Well?'' he said. ``Which?''

``I suppose,'' I hesitated, ``it must be `ARE white.''

He looked triumphant. ``The answer'' he said, ``is YELLOW.''

I groaned.

``They never get it right either,'' he said. ``Now how about this one? Tell me - if a rooster lays an egg on the Berlin Wall, does it belong to the East Germans or the West Germans? Well?''

``Oh, heavens,'' I said. ``How about BOTH?''

``You're worse than the Americans!'' he laughed. ``Roosters don't lay eggs!''

``Oh! This is too much for me. No more!'' I exclaimed. And both of us went into ... well ... cahoots of laughter: Here we were after only a couple of minutes already a conspiracy of Englishmen. ``I must go before you ask me another one. Well, it's been very nice to meet you,'' I said, and meant it.

``Give my love to Glasgow,'' he said.

``I will indeed. Be - ''

I managed to stop myself only in the nick of time. I nearly made the most dreadful faux pas, as the French put it. I had been just about to say, ``Be good.''

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