Toward A Grammatology of Morals (Or, Let’s Pick a Format!)

September 25, 2007

There’s a scene in Ernest Hemingway’s sublimely bizarre though not bizarrely sublime, “To Have and Have Not” (Which I find to be a wonderful infinitive construction, Mr. Chairman–what of it!) wherein a university professor ensconced in a local (he appears to have been there just long enough for it to have become local) watering hole engages in a game of etymologies with the roughneck pubians.

“That’s all you guys ever talk about. The old rale. What difference does the old rale make?”

“What’s the old rale?” Professor MacWalsey asked the man next to him at the bar. The man told him.

“I wonder what the derivation is,” Professor MacWalsey said...

“Why do they call it the old rale?” the Vet next to Professor MacWalsey asked another…

Nobody seemed to know but all enjoyed the atmosphere of serious philological discussion.

First, in honour of Hem, the word “ral(e)” comes to us from Newfoundland. Outside of the teeming masses of bored refuges seeking the bright lights and devilish fun of Nunavut, the word “ral(e)” is surely the first thing ever to emerge from Newfoundland. Rale is most likely derived from the Irish raille trickster, profligate. The word means, “rogue, ruffian, or troublemaker.” Ruffian, by the way, is not one of the oddest spelled words in the English language. Though it would appear to come from the word, “rough,” that is sadly a folk etymology. Ruffian is most likely derived from the old French rufyen or a later romance form. Also notable, given the Romance origin, is the now obsolete (e.g. preferred in these here parts) meaning of the term, “A protector or confederate of courtesans.” In other words, even if the pimp doesn’t beat you up he’s still a ruffian.

All blogging aside, tonight’s post is really intended as a poll of our readers. I enjoy focusing the majority of my energies into words. I think that English has lost much of its beauty over the years and we should all do our part to bring it back. I love finding verb forms of nouns that don’t deserve them. Perhaps most importantly, I think they’re great places to start a digression. Somewhere along the way, however, I started to think that our readers preferred other types of columns to the word posts. I’m sort of at a loss as to what to do. I now realize that the only way I will post consistently is if I have a regular angle. Is wordblogging an acceptable beat? I’d like to think that even if you don’t usually like discussing language, that the atmosphere of philological discourse is entertaining, especially when handled with the whim, whit, and whimsy that we at YS pride ourselves on occasionally providing. If not words, what would you prefer? Transit news? Reviews of classic skinema? Hockey coverage? Dutch ____?

I’d really like to hear from the readers on this. Audience is really the only reason to blog.

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12 Responses to “Toward A Grammatology of Morals (Or, Let’s Pick a Format!)”

  1. notwithabangbutawhimper Says:

    Dutch pancakes, maybe?

    In addition to being able to include pictures of delicious pancakes in our posts, we would at least get hits from people who are looking for the Walker Bros. Original Pancake House of Wilmette, IL.

  2. Annie Says:

    I love transit news, especially if it is water transit.

  3. dailysalad Says:

    notwithabang: Dutch pancakes sont qui est “in” maintenant. I’ll do a little research at the lab and see what I can come up with.

    Annie: Thanks for the reassurance. Water transit is not one of my strengths, but I’m glad to have reason to start researching high-speed ferries and all sorts of nautical ephemera. Where do you stand on nuclear powered cargo boats? Or, for that matter, warships made out of ice?

  4. Dick Gordon Says:

    The discussion of the origins of “the old rale”, is thoroughly enjoyable because of the serious philogical atmosphere.

  5. Ro Says:

    Re /old rale/: J. Green’s Dict of Slang says
    rale < raill, which is dialect for /reel/ and
    refers to the gait of the afflicted since the
    ailment hinders mobility and causes the sufferer
    to walk strangely as if reeling.
    That’s Green in paraphrase, but it sounds like
    an inaccurate description of the effect of the
    ailment, with a dialect word dragged in to fill
    in a void of obscurity. Too plausible to be reel.

  6. roughdoggo Says:

    Someone obviously is unable to interpret words in context.

    Hemingway, in the passages immediately preceding the one quoted above, makes clear that the “old rale” (as he uses it here) is a sexually-transmitted disease, most likely syphilis or perhaps gonorrhea. His red-haired vet character supposedly caught it during a boxing match – something the other characters discount as an old wives’ tale. They tell of others who got the disease in Shanghai, and “Off a girl in Brest, coming home” – in other words, from prostitutes, the second case that of a soldier while returning from France during or after WW I.

    The bad thing about the internet is that baseless opinions get spread by people who frankly are only partly literate, who are unfamiliar with the sources quoted, who are ignorant of what they speak, but are nonetheless willing to share their ignorance online, opinionating upon that of which they know very little.

    Unfortunately, such opinions have a tendency to rise to the top of the Google heap, as did the ones given above, which do nothing to explain Hemingway’s meaning.

  7. Evan Says:

    Yeah, somewhere in the middle of all the haughty language and cleverisms you failed to correctly interpret Hemingway’s usage. He’s pretty obviously referring to an STD. Perhaps there is a connection with the whole “ruffian” thing (or a double meaning), but I don’t see it explained here.

  8. Travis Says:

    I agree that STD seems to be the most likely answer, but I don’t understand how that would end one’s fighting ability.
    “I can take it, see?”…
    “But you can’t hand it out,”…
    “I don’t have to hand it out. I can take it, see?”…
    “Red could fight once but he’s got the old rale.”…
    “He was a good little fighter, too. I mean good.”…
    “What difference does the old rale make?”
    “None the way we are now. You’re just as happy with it.”
    “Poochy’s happier. He don’t know where he is.”

    • dave Says:

      Syphillis ultimately affects mental ability. Hence, Poochy “don’t know where he is” because the rale (possibly Syphillis) has caused him to lose his mind.

  9. rachael Says:

    sheesh. in a 1951 letter to charles scribner, hemingway explains that “the old rale” is a nickname for syphilis, specifically, going back to chaucer’s time. origins of the word aren’t specified but it clearly does not mean “ruffian” in this usage. the letter’s quoted in the book _hemingway’s quarrel with androgyny_ by somebody-or-other, i forget, if you are a nerd like me and want to check my source.

  10. Sonia Says:

    Well, that’s all good…but the ‘old rale’ in Hemingway’s to have and have not actually means syphilis. That’s why the Vets were going crazy.


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