It was my mum who passed on her love of English to me.
Born in Germany, she trained as a teacher during the war and completed her full Cambridge exams. This facilitated a job as an interpreter with the British Expeditionary Forces at war’s end. It was here that she met my dad, a captain in the British army during the war and whose job it now was to help Germany re-establish cultural and artistic ties with the U.K. and other European nations.
Mum was very meticulous and always totally dedicated to expanding her knowledge of the English language. For instance, she would keep a tiny dictionary squirrelled away in her undergarments and if a particular word she hadn’t before encountered needed to be translated, she would excuse herself, visit the loo and flip through the dictionary till she found the answer.
Occasionally, she would pick the wrong meaning. Once, she translated “a mature gentleman” as “a ripe gentlemen,” but generally these mistakes only served to whet her appetite for learning new English words and expressions even further.
The family emigrated to Australia in the 1950s and mum got a job with the Education Department. As a secondary school teacher of English at a country Victorian school in Australia, the school kids always had a lot of fun with mum. Who knew (if one weren’t a native speaker, well-versed in American cowboy movies) that it was pronounced “possy” and not “poss” – as in, “the sheriff and his posse…?” (There was also much furtive snickering when mum referred to a rooster as a cock, completely ignorant of the ribald meaning of the word.) The kids all enjoyed the game of “spot the spelling mistake,” winning 20 cents whenever any one of them could point out something mum had mistakenly written on the blackboard. Nobody became rich this way! As a child, I have fond memories of sitting at mum’s feet, being quizzed on the latest Education Department spelling list. It has stood me in good stead ever since.
A pet peeve was the mispronunciation of “longevity” – one of the commonest mistakes in existence! One would think it might be perfectly forgivable to pronounce a word having the meaning of “LONG life” as LONG-jevity, but no, rest assured, it is, indeed, LON-jevity. What she would have made of a particular football commentator who came out with “long-term jevity” when referring to a player’s career, is anyone’s guess!!!
In her later years in a nursing home, I could always rely on several phone calls a day querying the meaning of words or phrases she’d heard on the radio or TV, only for her to hang up the moment the meaning was explained to her. And call again the next day with the same question…
My mum passed on to her daughter her love of all things to do with the English language – from grammar to word derivations to the fascinating history of the language.
She passed away a month ago, several weeks short of her 92nd birthday. Now THAT was a long-bleedin’-jevitous innings! Rest in peace, Mutti.