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Maxed out: Take a stab at this…

max oct 28 2021
"As a rule of thumb, I’ve always believed it’s a good idea to at least pretend to be interested in what words actually mean," writes G.D. Maxwell this week.

Years ago, in my suit and tie days, I worked for a large, Canadian bank. There was a recession on and I was getting desperate for a job. While it defies explanation, I was hired into one that operated at a much higher level than I expected. It involved an uncomfortable exposure to the highest executives there, including the next two CEOs. 

Because of that, it exposed me to what I could only imagine were practices harkening back to earlier times. Not infrequently, I’d be in one of their offices discussing something or other and a man would enter quietly, kneel down in front of the executive in as unobtrusive a manner as possible given the bizarrely intrusive nature of the act, and begin to shine his—they were all male—shoes. The first time this happened, I thought I’d get mine shined too. Ah, no. Paygrade too low. Obvious pleb.

It was just one of many weird, class-based acts unavailable to those not a member of the inner circle. 

But one of the occasional perks of the job was attending a meeting that ran into the noon hour, at which point I’d be invited to dine in the executive dinning room. Unlike the cafeteria in the basement where we plebs ate, the executive dining room was a penthouse affair with tuxedoed waiters. The movers and shakers of Canadian business dined there frequently. I dined there infrequently and always felt as though the waiters believed I needed a better suit.

Several hours after one such working lunch I was visited by a coworker who’d been in attendance, a woman I’d gone to school with. A friend. She looked unsettled, possibly upset. She commented I’d also ordered the salmon, as had she. She asked what I’d done with the bones. “Put them on the side of my plate,” I answered, adding, puzzled “What did you do?”

“I ate them.”

“Is that why you seem upset?”

“No, it’s because of something you said. Something I thought was terribly inappropriate.”

Running through all the potentially inappropriate things I might have said, nothing jumped to mind. So I asked. “What’d I say?”

“You said something about getting down to ‘short strokes’ on the project we’ve been working on. I found that inappropriate and especially so since I was the only woman at the table.”

Even more puzzled, I said, “I’m confused. What do you think that means?”

The colour quickly rising to her face told me she was adding embarrassment to whatever else she was feeling. Could she be mistaken in her disapproval? She hemmed and hawed and said, as a question, “It’s about sex, isn’t it? You know, the quickening strokes before... “

“Oh, dear. I don’t know how to tell you this but in my world, it’s actually a golf term. About putting? The short strokes? Sinking the putt to finish the hole. An allusion to winding up the project.”

Luckily this took place long before social media and the me-too movement or else I might have been pilloried and fired before having a chance to set the record straight. 

I don’t know if ‘getting down to short strokes’ made the list of words and phrases enlightened people are not supposed to use anymore, according to the “Oppressive Language” list published by Brandeis University this summer, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find it did.

I’ve never been to Brandeis and if pressed, could only guess at its location. But apparently there are some very sensitive people who matriculate there... assuming matriculate is still an appropriate word.

Picnic is not. I’m not making this up. You can lunch and, weather permitting, you can outdoor eat at Brandeis, but picnicking is verboten. Verboten may be verboten as well, I’m not sure. 

In Brandeis-speak, and I’m putting this in quotes since otherwise you might be justified in thinking I just made it up, “The term picnic is often associated with lynchings of Black people in the United States, during which white spectators were said to have watched while eating, referring to them as picnics or other terms involving racial slurs against Black people.”

As an institution of higher learning, I’ve always assumed Brandeis paid at least passing attention to English grammar. But that sentence leaves me wondering whether white spectators were referring to Black people being lynched as picnics or referring to their fried chicken and potato salad. 

This confusion is compounded by the etymology—possibly an oppressive word itself—of picnic, which is derived not from white Southern Cracker dialect but from French, pique-nique, an 18th-century word denoting a social event at which each guest contributes to the food being consumed. Then again, as a hyphenated word, and French, pique-nique is clearly oppressive. That’s why this publication is named simply Pique.

As a rule of thumb, I’ve always believed it’s a good idea to at least pretend to be interested in what words actually mean. Of course, “rule of thumb” itself is grossly oppressive to the Brandeisians. Their rationale for finding it so is the belief, “This expression comes from an old British law allowing men to beat their wives with sticks no wider than their thumb.”

Were that true, I might go along with them. I don’t, for example, have an issue with them flagging the colloquialism wife-beater—for a man’s sleeveless undershirt—as offensive, both for its imagery and sartorial inelegance. But the inconvenient truth is there never was such a British law. The law of the land, before Britain developed what’s come to be called Common Law after the Norman conquest in 1066, allowed husbands to “moderately” beat their wives. But the practise, never a law, has been outlawed for centuries, during which time, rule of thumb was a standard shorthand for an estimation of measure.

Anything remotely violent is oppressive. Students leaving exams should not, under any circumstance, suggest they killed it. Nor, if unsure of the correct answer, should they take a shot at what might be the right answer. Nor take a stab at it either. 

You may drone on and on after making your point, but you should never beat a dead horse. And regardless of the choices available to you to accomplish a task, there are not multiple ways to skin a cat. You may face disciplinary actions should you be lucky enough to kill two birds with one stone, metaphorically, if oppressively, speaking.

I’m not sure what’s considered oppressive in sign language, but I’m thinking of taking a shot at it. Oops. 

Update: No public word from Vail Resorts but the challenge stake has been raised to $5,000 by an additional contribution from a reader. Hey, this could get interesting. I’ll happily track other contributions and report weekly.