A word to the wise – January 2014

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

“As we start the New Year, let’s get down on our knees to thank God we’re still on our feet.”

So goes yet another Irish toast, this one just right for the dawn of 2014. Our column for this January offers a New Year stew, mostly leftovers but hearty, and with enough spice to tickle the tastebuds, I’m hoping.

Longtime columnist Bill Vaughn proposed, “An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”

Farewells to the old and salutes to the new have been a standard assignment for poet laureates for a long time. Here’s the beginning of a long, meaty poem written back in 1842 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, personifying the old and new:

“Full knee-deep lies the winter snow, And the winter winds are wearily sighing:  Toll ye the church bell sad and slow, And tread softly and speak low, For the old year lies a-dying.” After multiple verses comes the graphic ending, but finally with a new figure stepping forth:

“His face is growing sharp and thin. Alack! Our friend is gone, Close up his eyes; tie up his chin; Step from the corpse, and let him in That standeth there alone, And waiteth at the door. There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend, and a new face at the door, my friend, A new face at the door.”

Maybe that’s not the sort of thing you’d want to recite as the clock strikes twelve New Year’s Eve. The same poet gave us a livelier verse on the turning of the year: “Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow. The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true.”

Many a New Year’s toast continues the theme, like this one: “May the best of this year be the worst of the next.” Or this verse from one George Cooper: “A song for the old, while its knell is tolled, And its parting moments fly!  But a song and a cheer for the glad New Year, While we watch the old year die!”

Mankind has marked the New Year for many millennia, sometimes religiously, often with resolutions, and frequently with celebrations. However, the year began in many ancient cultures with the vernal, or spring, equinox, as was the case with the Babylonians in modern Iraq in 2,000 B.C. Some, like the Persians and Egyptians, even celebrated the New Year at the fall equinox.

I’m thinking that spring, season of rebirth, seems right for a fresh start, but our current observation in January is appropriate too, coming soon after the sun begins to grow again at the winter solstice. Ancient northern cultures built monumental structures like Stonehenge to focus the first rays of the newborn sun at this time. But it was the Romans whose calendar eventually led to the West’s acceptance of January 1 as New Year’s Day. Typical of the practical Romans, they selected the date because the new consuls took office then, launching the civil year.

Celebrations and resolutions always were associated with the new year. As Walter Scott wrote, “Each age has deemed the new-born year the fittest time for festal cheer.” And we know that resolutions were made among the Babylonians, including such intentions as returning borrowed farm implements. Still, the most notable feature of most New Year’s resolutions is that very likely they’ll quickly be broken. “May all your trouble last as long as your New Year’s resolutions,” wishes one apt toast.

Mark Twain, not surprisingly, weighs in on the subject: “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” Another wag has observed, “A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.”

Every year a collection of worn-out expressions is proposed through Lake Superior State University’s list of banned words, and this seems to me to offer worthwhile material for resolutions. Last year, “fiscal cliff” was the top vote-getter among words to be banned. “Bucket list” also was banned in 2013. You can propose your own choices for banishment through the university website at lssu.edubanished

In my exhaustive research for this column, one of my New Year’s favorite finds was a poem by Philip Appleman, “To the Garbage Collectors in Bloomington, Indiana, the First Pickup of the New Year.” It ends with this paean:

“O garbage men, the New Year greets you like the Old; after this first run you too may rest in beds like great warm aproned laps and know that people everywhere have faith: putting from them all things of this world, they confidently bide your second coming.”

Word for the month: 

Crapulous (CRAP-you-lus), an adjective describing overindulgence in spirituous liquors, a state that we would do well to be wary of on New Year’s Eve. Keep in mind these deathless words of W. C Fields: “I never worry about being driven to drink; I just worry about being driven home.” A happy and healthy 2014 to you.

–Gerald Waite

Editor’s Note: Questions or comments are welcome. Write MM or direct messages to marquettemonthly@marquettemonthly.org

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