OLLI, Yancey, and X

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May 3, 2017 by libroshombre


The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), one of Fairbanks’ intellectual jewels like our public library, offers a wide array of short, interesting courses for people who’re over 50. A trip to the library was in order after being inspired by an excellent class on Paleolithic art taught by UAF biologist Dale Guthrie that included some excellent new terms, such as “neoteny: the retention of juvenile characteristics in the adults of a species, as among certain amphibians” (and humans).

Among public libraries’ shiniest aspects has to Interlibrary Loan services (ILL). Our local public library owns less than 400,000 books, magazines volumes, DVDs, CDs, and other items, but upon request our library will borrow any of millions of other titles from other libraries around the country. ILL’s marvelous for scratching intellectual itches, like finding a salacious banned autobiography written in the early twentieth century by a woman from my buttoned-down hometown. ILL also brought me DVDs about an obscure television series from the late 1950s titled “Yancy Derringer.”

Somewhat historically far-fetched, “Yancy Derringer” is a diverting, quasi-Western set in post Civil War New Orleans about a rambunctious riverboat gambler. It lasted only the 1958-59 season, and I’d not heard of it until taking an OLLI class on television series from the 50s and 60s. “Derringer” starred a strapping, likeable former stunt man named Jock Mahoney. Most intriguing was X Brands, the actor who played “Pahoo-Ka-T-Wah, Derringer’s Pawnee sidekick. Jay X Brands was a noted portrayer of American Indians and was acclaimed by several Native American organizations for his authenticity. The Pawnees in particular commended Brands’ accurate costuming, bearing, and especially his ability to use the tribe’s sign language. Brands was born in Kansas City to immigrant parents who came from a small German town. Long ago two men there were named Jan Brands, so one added “X” to his name was known thereafter as X Brands and the name’s been handed down since.

OLLI courses are packed with new things to consider, and often the inspirations come from fellow students. Knowing my interest in words and language, a classmate loaned me “Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like Literally),” a book by John McWhorter, who covers a lot of ground in amusing fashion.

In a chapter titled, “If someone says ‘dog,’ you might picture a dog, but if someone says ‘already,’ you picture the word as written … with our brains on writing, we imagine the word as scratched out in arbitrarily agreed-upon symbols …And one thing about writing,” McWhorter continued, “is that it stays put … Its stationary quality implies constancy, tradition, – law. This is much of why the English spelling system remains in place despite its absurdity: it’s cast in stone – in the case of English speakers, symbols ensnared into a senseless system besides.” An example of these elderly linguistic holdovers is in the sentence, “A rough-coated, dough-faced ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough, coughing and hiccoughing thoughtfully,” with “ough” pronounced eight different ways.

That resonated as I read “The Ol’ ‘Olde’ Gets Older,” a DailyWritingTips.com article from last month. Grammar maven Maevis Maddox, the article’s author, said it’s alright to use ol “when the intent is to simulate a drawl,” as in “Ol’ Man River.” Even though Ole is associated with institution like “Ole Miss,” and “Grand Ole Opry,” Maddox said “ol is preferable to ole.” When shooting for “a real or imagined medieval sensibility, the archaism olde often appearsin such designations as ‘Ye Olde Shoppe.’ Olde dates back to a time when spelling was more flexible (and may reflect pronunciation during that era) and was revived starting in the mid-nineteenth century to suggest an air of antiquity … Note that Ye is not used here as an archaic form of you; it includes a variant of the obsolete English letter thorn, which resembled a mash-up of a b and p and represents the soft th sound in the.”

            Being pretty olden myself, I’ll take all the mental stimulation OLLI and our library can offer, for, like French painter Gustave Courbet, “I am not one who was born in the custody of wisdom; I am one who is fond of olden times.”



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