A Coffee Break With Professor Cassidy

June 09, 1991|By RICK HOROWITZ

AT 10:30 EVERY MORNING, PROFESSOR Frederic Cassidy and his colleagues gather in a little room down the hall for a coffee break and conversation.

On this particular morning, Mr. Cassidy is looking for help with Italian. He's been working through an Italian proverb -- "He who goes quietly goes wisely" -- or is it "goes healthily"? -- and he's not certain whether the proper form for "he" in this case is "che" or "chi." He asks a staffer with a classics background -- no luck. Another staffer suggests that Mr. Cassidy contact the university's language department; he just may do that.

Mr. Cassidy then mentions a letter he's received from a man in Chicago -- someone exploring the possibility that St. Vitus, back in the third century, was Slavic, and that the name "Guy" somehow derives from him. The name trigger's Mr. Cassidy's recitation of the famous children's verse about Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605.

"Please to remember

The Fifth of November,

Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot . . . "

Mr. Cassidy notes that the name "Guy" was not given to British children for "centuries" after Fawkes disgraced it, until it was finally reclaimed by a heroic "Guy" in a more recent piece of literature.

There's politics at the root of many nursery rhymes, Mr. Cassidy points out, and other rhymes where the political context, if ever there was any, has been lost: Humpty Dumpty, for instance, says Mr. Cassidy, and:

"Lucy Locket lost her pocket,

Kitty Fisher found it,

Nothing in it, nothing in it,

But the ribbon 'round it."

A staffer picks up the challenge:

"Dr. Foster went to Gloucester,

In a shower of rain..."

Mr. Cassidy chimes in:

"Stepped in a puddle, up to his middle . . . "

And then, from the chorus:

"And never went there again."

"Puddle" and "middle" are hardly a perfect rhyme, someone notices. It probably used to be "piddle," Mr. Cassidy speculates, with "puddle" brought in years ago as a euphemism.

"Piddle" is still used, a staffer points out, to describe some things that dogs do. Not where she comes from, another staffer replies; "piddle" must be a regional term.

Regional terms: Mr. Cassidy mentions that he's just finished reviewing four booklets filled with proverbs from Vermont and around the world; he thought he might find some DARE words along the way. He did find two, he says: "puckersnatch" and "tuck." He opens the floor for speculation.

When someone is "in a puckersnatch" -- the term comes from a skein of threads, Mr. Cassidy says -- they're "confused" or "annoyed." And when something "takes the tuck out of you," you've been weakened in some way. Mr. Cassidy says he's made slips for these latest DARE possibilities.

Then they put down their coffee cups, Mr. Cassidy and his colleagues, and head back up the hall to work. The entire coffee break has lasted no more than 20 minutes.

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