How my readers keep me on my toes

One of the great pleasures of writing for the Monitor is the sense it affords of being part of a global conversation. Reader e-mail from all over helps keep me in line and sometimes helps fill in the picture.

To cite a couple of examples: Recently I wrote about the idiom "in for a penny, in for a pound," which was popping up in connection with the war in Iraq, but which had also turned up in an opinion by the US Supreme Court in a case involving Indian tribal rights in Arizona.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the idiom to 1695, to a Restoration comedy by Edward Ravenscroft, and indeed, that was the work cited in the court's opinion. I marveled that a line from the play should be cited in a case apparently so unrelated.

At this point, a reader, Judith Costello, wrote from Atlanta to bring a couple of additional points to my attention: "I was amused to see the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist mentioned in your article on the origin of the idiom 'In for a penny, in for a pound.' That phrase, in my mind, is invariably set to the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), who had the Lord Chancellor character in 'Iolanthe' sing 'in for a penny, in for a pound, it's love that makes the world go round.' "

When you're trying to connect the dots, it helps to have more of them. Ms. Costello has provided me with at least two more. I responded that I remembered the late chief justice as a G & S fan but was sure the opinion (of which Rehnquist was indeed the author) cited Ravenscroft, not G & S, as a source. That prompted this from her:

"Oh, I'm sure Rehnquist would have gone for the earliest written reference - but I'll bet as he wrote his opinion, his foot was tapping to Sullivan's melody playing in his head!"

Back in January, in a piece recounting my explorations of the world of ESL, English as a second language, I mentioned the "Pronunciation Poem," which I described, imprecisely but not inaccurately, as part of Internet folklore.

A reader has written in to set me straight, however: The real title is "The Chaos," and its author is described as "an English teacher named G. Nolst Trenité in the city of Haarlem," in the Netherlands.

A website for English teachers explains the poem was written to help "multinational personnel at North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters near Paris" overcome their accents and speak proper English.

Given, though, that Trenité died in 1946, three years before NATO came into being and that NATO is a multilingual organization anyway, I'm thinking "folklore" isn't a bad characterization.

I should have looked harder for an author. But pressed for time, I decided it was smarter to err on the side of being overly broad in my attribution rather than claiming more precise knowledge than I could justify with my research.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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