When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.
“The Good Life” by Tracy K. Smith from Life on Mars. © Graywolf Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings, and on Christmas Day he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abby. What nobody knew at the time was how much this would affect the English language. The British back then were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans spoke French. Over time, the languages blended, and as a result English became a language incredibly rich in synonyms. Because the French speakers were aristocrats, the French words often became the fancy words for things. The Normans gave us “mansion”; the Saxons gave us “house.” The Normans gave us “beef”; the Saxons gave us, “cow.”
The English language has gone on accepting additions to its vocabulary ever since, and it now contains more than a million words, making it one of the most diverse languages on Earth. Writers have been arguing for hundreds of years about whether this is a good thing.
The critic Cyril Connolly wrote, “The English language is like a broad river … being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck.” But Walt Whitman said, “The English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.” And the poet Derek Walcott said, “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.”
Today we celebrate the birthday of the teacher, philosopher, and political theorist popularly known as Confucius, born near what is now Qufu, in Shandong Province, China, in 551 BCE.
Not a lot is known about Confucius’s childhood. He was probably a member of an aristocratic family that had lost its wealth, because he was born in poverty. His father died when Confucius was three years old, and his mother took charge of his education. The boy had a real thirst for knowledge, and asked many questions wherever he went. He took some minor government jobs when he was a teenager, but also made an effort to seek out knowledgeable masters to instruct him in the six arts: ritual, music, archery, chariot driving, calligraphy, and arithmetic. He began to turn his thoughts to practical questions of morality and ethics.
As a young man, he traveled widely throughout China, meeting with leaders of the various provinces and trying to impress upon them the importance of self-discipline and virtue. He didn’t approve of what he saw as the moral decline of China after years of political unrest. He also believed that there was a connection between the personal and the universal, and that poor political decisions could lead to natural disasters like floods. At one point in his travels, he was imprisoned for five days due to a case of mistaken identity. He didn’t let it ruffle his feathers, though, and reportedly sat calmly playing his lute while the muddle was sorted out.
In his 30s, he returned home and started a school that was open to rich and poor alike. Teaching was a way of life to him, not just a career. His teaching philosophy was revolutionary: rather than simply training apprentices in particular skills, education could and should be used for the welfare and improvement of society. He felt obligated to bring back an emphasis on humility, compassion, and tradition, to encourage people to exercise self-discipline, and to always act on the principle of “ren,” or “loving others.” “What you do not wish for yourself,” he wrote, “do not do to others.” He hoped that his students would carry these principles with them into positions with the government, and thereby form a generation of leaders who would set a virtuous example for the people of China. He also began to write, including two books of poetry — the Book of Odes and the Book of Documents. None of his books contained his philosophy, however; what we know about Confucianism today is what was passed down to his many students.
Confucius died in 479 BCE, but his stature continued to grow after his death. By the second century BCE, Confucianism formed the basis for China’s state ideology, and he is considered one of the most influential minds in Chinese history. His birthday is an official holiday in Taiwan, where it is celebrated as Teachers’ Day. His writings were first translated into English by James Legge in 1867, and a more readable translation was published by Oxford University in 1907.
Confucius wrote: “There are three things which the wise man holds in reverence: the Will of Heaven, those in authority, and the words of the sages. The fool knows not the Will of Heaven and holds it not in reverence: he is disrespectful to those in authority; he ridicules the words of the sages.”
And: “He who does not understand the Will of God can never be a man of the higher type. He who does not understand the inner law of self-control can never stand firm. He who does not understand the force of words can never know his fellow-men.”
It’s the birthday of Kate Douglas Wiggin (books by this author), born in Philadelphia, (1856), who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and many other novels. She also started the first free kindergarten on the West Coast, in San Francisco. She spent much of her own life working as a teacher, and she once said, “Every child born into the world is a new thought of God, an ever fresh and radiant possibility.”
It’s the birthday of a man who shaped popular culture in America for almost 25 years, Ed Sullivan, born in Manhattan, New York City (1901), who was a gossip columnist for the New York Daily News and occasionally moonlighted as a master of ceremonies for local variety shows and dance contests. He was working at a giant dance competition called the Harvest Moon Ball when someone asked him if he’d like to try hosting a show on this new thing called television. He was 46 years old.
The Ed Sullivan Show, originally called Toast of the Town, premiered live on CBS in 1948, and within a few years, about 50 million people watched it every Sunday night. Television was so new at the time that people didn’t know what to do with it. Sullivan modeled his show on vaudeville and did a little of everything, throwing together opera singers, rock stars, novelists, poets, ventriloquists, magicians, pandas on roller skates, and elephants on water skis. Sullivan had always hated that he was required to “dish dirt” in his gossip columns, so he decided that on his variety show, everything would be positive. He told every performer that he or she was wonderful.
Sullivan was a shy, awkward man offstage — couldn’t tell jokes or sing or dance. A car accident in 1956 severely damaged his face and his teeth, and he was often in terrible pain onstage, suffering from ulcers. But he loved performers, and he personally chose every guest for his show. He spent most of his free time searching for talent in nightclubs, often staying out until 4:00 in the morning.
Sullivan was one of the first talk show hosts to invite African-American performers and celebrities onto his show when it was still controversial: Jackie Robinson, Duke Ellington, Richard Pryor, and James Brown. His producers sometimes objected to his choices, but the only thing Sullivan cared about was talent. At the end of his career, in 1971, there were 20 different variety shows on television, all appealing to different demographics. Sullivan was the last television host who tried to appeal to everyone in America. Edward Sullivan, who said his formula for success was, “Open big, have a good comedy act, put in something for children, and keep the show clean.”