Sunday, September 18, 2005

Postillions I have known...

. . . can be counted on none finger.

Richard Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard has unlocked a teeming horde of seductive words with his Ideology of Phrasebooks and thereby prompted my memory of an unforgettable phrase:

"Our postillion has been struck by lightning!"

I believe that I first read this sentence in an essay used by Sheridan Baker, perhaps in his Complete Stylist, which I have in my office and thus cannot immediately check, or possibly in his Practical Stylist, though I don't find it in either the sixth or eighth edition.

The sentence was given as an example of useless phrases in guidebooks -- useless because vanishingly unlikely to be needed in any reasonable circumstances. But the essay's author went on to note the more interesting point that most dialogue provided by guidebooks is useless because, outside of a few very simple requests, most of the sentences offered are unlikely to be needed.

Even the simple requests sometimes misfire:

Hapless tourist: "Where is the toilet?"

Native Speaker: "In the bathroom, you idiot!"

This is an entirely plausible dialogue, but most guidebook dialogues are implausible.

In fact, most of the remarks that we utter each day are novel constructions. The essay's author noted this point and used it to introduce Noam Chomsky's linguistic theory of generative grammar, which argues that 'deep' grammatical structures generate an endless variety of 'surface' sentences.

Using Google, we can test the essayist's point that most sentences are novel. Go to Google's Advanced Search webpage, find the slot labeled "with the exact phrase," and type in the simple sentence "I'd like to buy Gravity's Rainbow."

Nothing comes up.

Try it with simple and with complex sentences of your own making. The more complex the sentence, the less likely it is to show up, but even quite simple sentences are often novel and fail to show up in an advanced google search.

This doesn't prove Chomsky's theory, but it does illustrate the flaw behind most guidebooks that provide 'handy' phrases for the language-deficient traveler.

But you're still wondering about postillions. Let's check Webster for its definition of "postillion":

one who rides as a guide on the near horse of one of the pairs attached to a coach or post chaise especially without a coachman

This doesn't clarify much, but it does suggest the statement's implausibility. The unlikelihood of anyone ever needing to say anything about a postillion has raised doubts that the statement or a variant of it ever appeared in any guidebook's handy phrases. Those doubts can now be allayed if not quite extinguished, for one intrepid soul, Nigel Rees, has found some tantilizing evidence:

Q729 An actual source for the famous phrasebook line, 'My postillion has been struck by lightning'. In Karl Baedeker's The Traveller's Manual of Conversation in Four Languages (1836 ed.) is: 'Postilion, stop; we wish to get down; a spoke of one of the wheels is broken.' In an 1886 edition I have found: 'Are the postilions insolent?; the lightning has struck; the coachman is drunk.' From these examples it is quite clear that the preposterous phrase could quite likely have appeared in Baedeker or similar, but where? In 1935, the phrase was said to come from a Dutch phrasebook.

These examples get us pretty close, but as my high school coach used to say, "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."


At 10:29 PM, Blogger Jan said...

The phrase "my postilion has been struck by lightning" came up 48 times in a google search. Not too bad for a completely useless phrase. lol!

At 4:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

And if you delete the word "my," as I had to do in my search the other day, then you'll get 74 hits.

Oddly, the original phrase that I was searching, "Our postillion has been struck by lightning," shows no hits. Perhaps I remembered the phrase wrong from that essay that I read many years ago.

Anyway, quoted lines will often show a lot of hits in Google searches, so they're an exception to the rule that most of our utterances (typances?) are novel.

At 9:54 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I have just noticed (but should have noticed earlier) that our word has two variant spellings:

1. postilion

2. postillion

The first seems to be the most common, but my original phrase doesn't show up. With the second spelling, I find four items (one of them being a comment of my own on Unlocked Wordhoard) in a search for "Our postillion has been struck by lightning."

Here's what showed up:

"Good God! Our postillion has been struck by lightning!"

It's attributed to a 19th-century Russian phrase book, but no specific source is provided.

Here's the web address:

The attributions for this phrase or its variants are all over the place -- French, Dutch, Russian, Hungarian -- which makes me wonder about its authenticity, but there is that Nigel Rees fellow . . . .

At 1:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For more information on horseshoes, please visit

At 5:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the link. Do you have anything on hand grenades?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just Googled the sentence about Graity's Rainbow, and got a link to this page.

At 9:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, Anonymous, it's said that "All roads lead to Rome" -- especially recursive ones...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:11 AM, Blogger Stuart Armor said...

August 30, 1916 The British magazine Punch includes this item: "An officer serving in the Balkans writes to say that he has just come across a Hungarian - English phrase - book which starts with the useful phrase, "My postilion has been struck by lightning." There have been thousands of subsequent mentions of this phrase in different phrasebooks in many languages. No one has yet to produce such a phrasebook, but many have apparently seen them.

My postilion has been struck by lightning,
and not only was it very frightening,
but now I am quite frustrated
because my grief can not be fully stated.
I'm not actually all obtuse,
but I can not say it a la Russe.
My postilion has been blown up from his toes to his cranium,
but I can't tell that to a Ukrainian.
There are no deposits in my linguistic bank,
so I can't, in French, be completely frank.
I've not a single noun or verb
that helps me share the news with any Serb.
I'm in distress, and I sulk on
the lack of dialogue with a Balkan.
My postilion was brave and noble,
yet there's no conveying that in Prague or Chernobyl.
If I had some reference or lexicon,
I could share my sorrow with a Mexican,
however, the news about my favorite postilion
remains unknown to a Basque or a Castilian.
If only I had some phrasebook for translation,
I could speak about my late postilion to anyone of any nation.
Hope you all find this entertaining, it's part of a series of work I do.

At 6:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thank you, Mr. Stuart Armor, for the entertaining presentation in rhyming couplets -- and for the information about Punch.

Jeffery Hodges

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