Fitting Words

William Shakespeare’s reminded us to “Fit the action to the word, the word to the action.”

After the municipal election in Toronto, the Equal Voice organization dispatched an email headlined “Women Break Critical Mass in Toronto Election” and told of a high number of women elected to council. It’s a triumphant stage in local government, to be sure. But “breaking” critical mass? This term, from physics, has meaning if one “reaches” or “achieves” critical mass, but if it should be broken, well, that’s really a pity.

Billboards around Ontario ask “Do You Know Who Made Your Eggs This Morning?” Accompanying the question is a large photograph, on one billboard of a farmer in eastern Ontario, on another of a farm couple from some other rural part of the province. The egg marketing organization, in trying to promote consumption of eggs, obviously decided to humanize the message.

Yet the thought that this man, kindly and smiling though he is, “made my eggs this morning” not only gives short shrift to the hen who created them, yet another example of an executive taking credit for the unacknowledged industry of his workers, but leaves an incongruous image I’d just as soon not associate with eating food.

Even if your mind does not work so literally as to picture this man emiting an egg from his body in the manner of a productive hen, what about the common usage in English of “making eggs” as meaning cooking them. “I’ll make the eggs while you cook the bacon.” This guy was not at my home making my eggs this morning, or any other morning I can recall, at least recently.

The term also has a figurative meaning, as in “He laid an egg!” — for when a person tried something that is a failure, which this costly advertising campaign strikes me as being, for no reason other than failing to remember the lesson Shakespeare taught.

However, studying roadside billboards at length (the newest diversion for Torontonians boasting North America’s worst traffic congestion since outranking Los Angeles in this department) does not always mean exposure to inept wordsmithing or inapt imagery. In fact, there are plenty of rewarding examples of the lanuague being used for good communication.

Remember when the boast of restaurateurs was to offer “home-cooked” meals, or food “just like Mom made it”? This week a billboard informed me of a new (to me) line of prepared food under the “Ristorante” brand name, presumably available in grocery stores. In a neat switch, the advertisement proclaimed these foodstuffs desirable “for that restaurant taste!” Good-bye comfort food, hello sophistication.

Isn’t it a treat to see artful use of language? Even in small ways like this Ristorante example, one can appreciate the skill of fitting words to an intended purpose, such as working a switch-up on a prized quality like the virtue and taste of home-cooked meals.

On the other hand, once the critical mass of eggs has been broken and an omlette made, it cannot be undone.

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When small is big

You don’t always have to be big to make a large impact. In fact, Huntsville’s “doll lady” achieved international renown precisely because she was not big. In 1902, when 18 years old and fully developed, Cora Shay stood only 32 inches high and weighed just 32 pounds.

          An adult in miniature, Shay was an oddity of nature. She fascinated all who met her – including the King and Queen when she was presented to the regal couple when making a royal tour among their Canadians subjects in 1901.

          A midget enthralls people the same way anything rendered in miniature does – be it an extensive model train display, a ship in a bottle, or the entire Bible printed in a book the size of a postage stamp.  The scale allows us to see the familiar in a totally different way.

          When the tiny perfect rendition of something familiar is another human being, we are even more amazed, as the “doll lady” of Huntsville proved. Cora Shay was a remarkable character whose specialty was captivating those who met and spoke with her. On first appearance, she might have seemed to strangers like a fairy, a creature of make-believe delight which, until that moment of encountering Cora, had only been known to populate childhood fantasy tales.

          She seemed like a toy, or a sculptor’s small-scale rendition of a human being. But people’s expectations were tricked. The wee person functioned normally. She was not a toy. She was not an artifice.

          “She is possessed of all her faculties and is very sprightly in manner,” her hometown newspaper, The Huntsville Forester, enthusiastically reassured readers on September 12, 1902. “She is a most interesting conversationalist, a lover of the beautiful.”

          What went unstated was the further astonishment, “How can this be?” Although midgets and dwarfs have long joined other “freaks of nature” in the tents of travelling circuses, the only thing freakish is the huckster’s promotion and display of humans who depart from the norm, or who suffer a disability or defective formation.

          One thing that was not small was Corita’s earnings. People paid admission to see her, and her tours carried her far and wide, often with brother-in-law Joe Walker of Huntsville accompanying her. By April 3, 1903, the Forester reported, as she was about to head off on another tour through the United States, ”Our little Cora is a grand lady while on her travels. She commands a salary that would make a president of a bank happy.”

          By 1905, again performing in the United States as part of the touring Bostock Show, about the only thing that had grown larger was her name, from Cora to Corita. This upgrade was more alliterative for show biz entertainment: “Step this way, folks, and see with your own eyes the world’s smallest woman—Corita Shay!” Corita also sounding more like a diminutive term of endearment.

HELP!  The above is an early draft of an article about Cora Shay, posted here in the hope anyone with more info about her — the Canadian counterpart to Tom Thumb, famous in the United States circus circuits — will reply and share your leads or stories with me.

Posted in Work-in-Progress | 5 Comments