Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Three cheers and a tiger

     Strange. I really don't talk much about writing books here. 
     Several reasons, I suppose. I don't want to create the impression that producing a high quality newspaper column doesn't take up  all my time and energy, 24/7. The skilled carpenter doesn't want to be caught on the job, whittling away on his side project.
     Second, I suppose there is a certain magic act quality to books. You undermine the effect if you show the machinery to the audience, the hollow compartment in the top hat, the years of gerbil-on-a-wheel effort required to produce a manuscript. Better to pretend it isn't happening then,  every few years just produce the finished volume—"SHAZAM!!!"—from out your sleeve, along with a few fluttering white doves.
     Those two motivations seem better honored in the breach than in the keeping.
     So I was grinding through the May 2, 1893 Chicago Record on Monday, reading about opening day of the World's Columbian Exposition for my next book. Being reminded, yet again, of the glory of having several news outlets cover a story. Because the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News inflicted the drudgery of the unedited speeches, the opening Columbian ode, in all its stultifying glory, while the Record reporter seemed to be lost somewhere in the crush of the mob, slogging through the "cheerless drizzle" and the yellow mud, while the speeches were an inaudible garble somewhere far away. Women fainted, soldiers held back throngs with fixed bayonets. Everything was late. Not the happy Cracker Jack and Ferris Wheel image of the fair that abbreviated histories tend to present.
    Though eventually the Record catches up with President Grover Cleveland, in town to press the gold-and-ivory key to start opening (is it the key that gets the machinery going, or is it a certain young man conspicuously waving his hat?) 
    The Record followed Cleveland to the train, where this sentence stopped me.
     "As Mr. Cleveland was alighting from his carriage at the station gates three cheers and a tiger were given with a will."
      For a moment, I thought a big cat was presented to the president, as a parting gift. But the proximity of "tiger" to "three cheers" sparked some dusty memory of the after echo of pre-World War I collegiate football, something in an old Mickey Rooney movie perhaps. 
    Into the Oxford English Dictionary. First reference defines "tiger" as "a large carnivorous feline quadruped," a word whose origin is lost in those unknowable countries to the East ("a foreign word, evidently oriental, introduced when the beast became known.")
     "Oriental" is a taboo word now, by the way. In case you didn't know.
     I kept reading.
     Bingo: "8. U.S. slang. A shriek or howl (often the word 'tiger') terminating a prolonged and enthusiastic cheer; a prolongation , finishing touch, final burst. "
    The first usage listed is in 1857, with plenty of mentions online among soldiers on both sides during the American Civil War. "Three cheers and a tiger" is almost a cliche by 1893, not to mention a contemptuous bit of American enthusiasm, as reflected in this remark from the London Daily Telegraph of Oct. 8, 1880, cited in the OED: "'Three cheers' in properly hearty unison, without the hysterical American supplement of 'tigers.'"
      Judging from descriptions elsewhere, the tiger itself is a kind of enthusiastic growl. 
      We are still a passionate people, lost in zeal. The election is proof of that. But somehow, I have a hard time picturing the kind of "hip-hip, hooray!" cheering that our great-grandfathers seem to have done, never mind capped by a yowl of inarticulate, feline joy. 
    How come? Why are verbal tigers following actual ones into oblivion; indeed, racing ahead of them and arriving at extinction first?
    Theories: Maybe it's just a matter of style. Maybe people are too busy taking cell phone pictures to give a few "rah rah rah, sis boom bahs." Maybe we've simply forgotten the practice, or are so atomized that the idea of doing anything in unison is alien to us. That last one sounds right.



  1. Marvelous. Mencken hasn't mentioned it yet in my progress through his discussion of the "American" language. Though, coincidentally, in alluding to influences on "American," he touches on the Know Nothings and others protesting the influx of foreigners and foreign ways and foreign speech, referring mostly to Germans and Irish in the mid 1800s.


    1. That was the "tiger" I was referring to.


  2. Now we have insane banshees like Kimberley Guilfoyle, imitating Hitler with speech.
    Afterwards, she probably went out & killed 101 Dalmatians.
    [I borrowed that line from a comment on a WaPo article on her unhinged "speech".

  3. Thanks for letting us know about "Oriental". I think it's still OK if your referring to rugs. But you never know. Things change so fast.


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