Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Does, Don'ts and Other Pointless Things

I once heard a story about a new wife who was hosting her first family Thanksgiving. As she cut the end off the ham before putting it in the roasting pan, her husband asked, “Why did you do that?”

She looked at the meat, looked at her husband, and said, “I don’t know. My mother always did it.”

The newlyweds couldn’t figure out a logical reason, so the wife phoned her mother.

“Why do you always cut the end off the ham before you cook it?” she asked.

There was a brief silence, then her mom said, “I don’t know. Your grandma always did.”

Luckily Grandma was still taking calls.

Turns out that when she was first married, her roasting pan was too small to hold a whole ham, so she’d always had to cut off the end to make it fit. What was once a sensible solution had become a pointless tradition.

Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University describes a similar linguistic oddity – the way that English has incorporated “do.” For example, check out how many times in the anecdote above I used “do” and its variants “don’t” and “did.” How many of them actually indicate an action? Or anything else useful?

Instead of asking, “Would you like to go for a walk?” or “Want you to go for a walk?” as I would in, say, French, I ask, “Do you want to go for a walk?”

The “do” isn’t, in fact, “do”-ing anything.

So I wonder how much of my life do I devote to other meaningless “do”s.
Even before I heard Dr. McWhorter’s talk* I had done my best to purge such hollow acts from my life. I don’t vacuum as often as my foremothers did. I don’t feel compelled to wash the dishes after every meal.

Instead, I spend my time more usefully, or so I like to think. I read more. I make up stories. I watch the birds outside my window. I walk to the grocery store, usually listening to music and returning library books on the way. These, to me, are not meaningless dos.

On Monday, for example, I could have wiped down the kitchen cupboards, raked the yard, or run errands. Instead, I saddled up Miss Jean Brodie. I took no saddlebags, no lock, and no agenda besides the sheer pleasure of a bike ride on a sunny September day. I spent an hour and a half whirling through salty air past gardens vibrant with pink and orange dahlias up thigh-burning hills with endorphins singing in my brain. The fact that I didn’t have any had no destination or chores didn’t affect made no difference to the meaningfulness of my pleasure.

In all the world’s 6,000 languages, the meaningless do exists only in an Italian dialect called Monnese that is spoken by a handful of people, in English, and in the Celtic language Cornish.

As it happens, my Goldsworthy ancestors were from Cornwall. So perhaps this little essay is my attempt to expiate the meaningless do that my forebears visited on the world. Perhaps, if we dump it linguistically, it will also fall away from our actions.
I’ll do my part.

Working on it.

*“Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage,” taught by Dr. John McWhorter, The Great Courses, 2012, on DVD


  1. So many 'do's' that become habits . . . habits better ditched for a lovely bike ride on a sunny fall day. Great post, Rachel!

  2. At risk of using a meaningless do, Rachel, I'm glad you "did" write a blog. :-)

  3. I love this, it made me laugh, and I am putting it on my facebook page because I think it really DOES provide a wise take on our doings!

    ( the only useful do is the one before dum )