Monday, October 1, 2012

Changes passing by

A few curious things I have been playing with, things you might also find interesting. All in the category of change.

File:REA woman works washboard.gif1. A change in working and being worked for

Seen at our local historical museum: an old-time ribbed-metal and wood washboard with an instruction that reads:
Don't rub too hard! Let the board do the work.
Let that bounce around in your mind for a while.

2. A change in moving and being moved

I thought it was a typographical error the first time I saw it. In a Dickens novel he referred to people walking on a city street as "passengers." Then I started seeing it again and again. Here's an example from Oliver Twist:
It was within an hour of midnight. The weather being dark, and piercing cold, he had no great temptation to loiter. The sharp wind that scoured the streets, seemed to have cleared them of passengers, as of dust and mud, for few people were abroad, and they were to all appearance hastening fast home.
From The Old Curiosity Shop:
It was the beginning of a day in June; the deep blue sky unsullied by a cloud, and teeming with brilliant light. The streets were, as yet, nearly free from passengers, the houses and shops were closed, and the healthy air of morning fell like breath from angels, on the sleeping town.
Clearly these "passengers" are not riding but walking. In some places, where Dickens has need to speak of carriages and coaches, he amends the simple "passengers" to "foot-passengers," as in this quote from Nicholas Nickleby:
Presently, the coach came; and, after many sorrowful farewells, and a great deal of running backwards and forwards across the pavement on the part of Miss La Creevy, in the course of which the yellow turban came into violent contact with sundry foot-passengers, it (that is to say the coach, not the turban) went away again, with the two ladies and their luggage inside; and Newman, despite all Mrs Nickleby's assurances that it would be his death--on the box beside the driver.
My guess is that in Dickens' time the separation between conveying oneself (passenger as passer-by) and being conveyed (passenger as cargo) was just beginning to be required. The online etymology dictionary says the conveyance meaning ("one traveling in a vehicle or vessel") was "attested" (in use?) as early as the 1500s. But certainly Dickens must not have felt it was confusing to his readers to use the term to mean people walking by as late as the mid-1800s.

In our time nobody would ever refer to someone walking as a passenger, or even as a foot-passenger. It would simply make no sense. The word now means being fully conveyed. A free online dictionary describes a passenger as "a traveler riding in a vehicle (a boat or bus or car or plane or train etc) who is not operating it." Apparently there is also a slang use of the word as "a member of a group or team who is a burden on the others through not participating fully in the work." If something has gone all the way into metaphor, it's pretty firmly situated in its meaning; it has to be for the metaphor to work.

What does it mean that we now see ourselves as not moving but moved? I don't know, but it must mean something.

3. A change in knowing and being known

We have recently been watching The Andy Griffith Show on Netflix. It is simply fascinating. The other day we saw an episode about privacy and information, called "Stranger in Town" (Season 1 Episode 12), that anybody who is interested in society in the age of the internet will want to watch. It sets all sorts of mental gears turning.

File:George Nader Andy Griffith Elinor Donahue Andy Griffith Show 1961.jpgI'll give you a brief synopsis. A man shows up in Mayberry, Ed Sawyer. He is a complete stranger, but he knows many details about everyone in town: names, habits, quirks. The townspeople respond with some distrust and fear, though they are mostly too mystified to know how to react. Is he a spy? An alien? A Hollywood agent? A long-lost relative? Someone with a loose screw? In the end, as usual, Andy the sheriff calms everyone down and finds out the innocent cause of the mystery. Turns out Ed heard all about Mayberry from an Army buddy of his who was born there. When he left the Army he found he liked the place so much that he renewed his buddy's subscription to the local newspaper. That's how he knew about everybody and everything. Once Andy explains the situation everyone welcomes the nice, if over-eager, man to the town, and he settles in.

What I found amazing about this episode was how I felt watching it. You might think that in this day and age I would find Ed Sawyer's ability to find out a paltry amount of information about people quaint and pleasant. Surprisingly, I felt more alarmed at the state of affairs (in the first part of the show) than the townspeople did! At one point Opie (Andy's 5-year-old son) ran out of the sheriff's office onto the sidewalk, and I had a strong emotional reaction: Don't let Opie go out alone with a stalker like that hanging around! The whole thing was almost like a twilight-zone episode, it felt so creepy. It felt even creepier that Andy (the law) was so accepting of the stalker. Evidently in the 60s such a plot was seen as television-cute (as all of the other Mayberry plots have been so far). It does not seem so now. My guess is that because we all know how people can find out lots about each other, we can link it more strongly and obviously to intent: negative intent, nasty intent. And apparent evidence of negative intent is more alarming than any mystery.

That's how I felt, anyway, watching it. I'm curious to know how other people watching that show today would feel. If you watch it, or have watched it, tell me how it seemed to you.

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