In front of television cameras in 1998, Representative Henry Hyde regressed for a moment to a pre-television English. As he prepared to consider the impeachment of President Clinton before the House Judiciary Committee, he asked the clerk, “How much time have I?” I still remember being startled by that idiom, the inversion of subject and main verb in a question. For decades before 1998 I had heard it only in old movies, yet suddenly Representative Hyde, on color TV, was speaking the language of a black-and-white newsreel.
Well, the anachronism isn’t mysterious. In 1998 Representative Hyde was 74 years old, and he was simply continuing to speak English as it had been spoken when he was young — for instance, in the year 1938, when a physician in William Carlos Williams’s short story “The Girl with a Pimply Face” asked about a sick baby, “Has it diarrhoea?” (119). I haven’t conducted a systematic search, but from books and movies I get the impression that during the first half of the twentieth century that inverted construction (“Has it diarrhoea?”) gave way rapidly and almost completely to the construction with an auxiliary verb, along with a related change in pronoun reference (“Does she have diarrhea?”). As infant mortality became unusual in the Anglophone world, speakers of English no longer had a practical use for the self-protective reflex of referring to babies as only provisionally human it-objects. But Representative Hyde, by that time in his own history, was no longer noticing.
Outside sickrooms, however, the old idiom’s final years coincided with the aftermath of the war and plague of 1914-1918. Even in health during that time, speakers of American English must have felt the fear of mortality in new ways. At any rate, advertisers seemed to have intuited such an insecurity, for the idiom of their advertisements began straining after the perdurable. Fonts went lapidary, vocabulary went Latinate, and syntax began pacing itself slower to accommodate the dignified walking rhythms of the healthily portly. For the portly in one such advertisement, the penalty of Adam was to be mitigated by something called the Enclosure, and the vocabulary that prepared souls to enter the Enclosure sang of eternal life. Its syntax, too, modulated itself into a gently rocking iambic tetrameter with a feminine ending as it intoned, “Nor have they then a makeshift body.”
But the rite of the Enclosure drew its deepest power from its simplest trait: mobility, the assurance it extended to the enclosed that it wasn’t just an Enclosure but an Enclosure on wheels. After 1918, especially, that assurance drew strength from a new, post-1918 knowledge: the knowledge that at a not unimaginably great distance from the hard stable surface under the Enclosure’s wheels, a body lay barely moving in a bed. The sense of that difference took form as a solemn didactic happiness, and it taught itself to riders in the Enclosure with a single noun scratched deep into its own photosensitized surface. Cripple, said the noun to the world of 1918, in a photographic caption carefully worked into a Socratic lesson plan. And the world of just after 1918 happily responded in the counter-language it had newly learned, “The Enclosure cannot rattle or squeak.”
But to the world no longer inhabited by Henry Hyde the old noun still cries Cripple. A blogger with a taste for the comedy of the antique may have posted the pompous disyllable cannot because “cannot rattle or squeak” makes a more nineteenth-century sound than “can’t rattle or squeak,” but cripple seems unaffected by the passage of time. Affixed to its glass backing, the depicted body of the cripple has a permanent context. The glass is cracked but not altered in its transparency to meaning.
But the cripple’s glass has been paired with another hard permanent document, and that one is reassuringly opaque. Within the image itself, erected directly over the cripple’s bed, a wooden slab promises in knotty pine, “I can’t speak, but if I could I would say, ‘I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed.’ My name, which none of us need to speak because all of us know it, is Makeshift.”
Even more reassuring, Makeshift has another name, in actual speakable language: the word design. Design is a word from the universe of meaning that Keats, making use of a mobile metaphor (“Much have I travell’d”), called the realms of gold. Singing from a libretto scratched deep into the cripple’s image, design assures us who are not yet crippled that in coming times it will enchant us as well. It will dance, too, as it comes. It will dance right through the glass that will begin enclosing us when we sink into our bed. After all, the sinking will still be a motion of the body.
So rejoice, sings the word design. So long as you remain only partially crippled, I will be with you. While you still are able, raise your paintbrush and let it touch me and transmit my strength to you. For the time being, now am I your makeshift body.
Sources: William Carlos Williams, “The Girl with a Pimply Face.” The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1996) 117-30. The story was first published in book form in Life Along the Passaic River (1938).
The automobile advertisement originally appeared in Literary Digest 24 November 1923. I copied it and Photoshopped it for sharpness from http://blog.vintascope.com/post/145306079472/oakland-motor-car-company-19231124-literary
The undated photograph of the man in bed is one of a group of World War I hospital images apparently taken in France. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006002284/. Photoshopped.
From 1922, some contemporary satire of the pretentious diction of American advertisements can be found in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt.