The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
The Cat is on the Table. A potential neologism
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CF: I’m really not sure. Maybe this cat is an orphan. I first came across it in the English/Italian version of the Rosetta Stone – “il gato è sul tavolo.” The Rosetta Stone is an interactive software application for learning foreign languages, where you talk to the computer through a Janet Jackson type of combination headphone/microphone. It’s just a prepositional phrase. My fear is that until we figure out why this literal cat is on the table (however figuratively sturdy it may be) or how it got there, the cat’s just going to stay there, when it could go other places, do other things.
NM: Would the phrase have stuck out at you in the same way if you had read it in a phrasebook?
CF: Maybe not. There’s definitely something about saying it out loud to a computer. The Rosetta Stone just seems crazy at first. You don’t memorize. There’s no translation. You just get thrown directly into foreign speech – enunciating sounds, stuttering and mumbling in an alien space – choking on the new shapes the mouth has to make to produce pronunciations – where you have to stammer and figure it out to survive. The first steps were a swamp for me, so “the cat is on the table” became a sort of buoy, this comedic life raft, or maybe just more of a lighthouse, but its beams weren’t leading to any firm shore.
PB: Then where were they leading?
CF: Anywhere, and that’s a big part of the issue here – what does it mean when it can mean anything? It may well sum-marize being lost in a new foreign language. For me, it already works as an expression for when you can’t express something. It could be a write-off or resignation for when you’re stammering, pointing, and miming, beet-faced and reduced to pre-verbal gestures. When you run out of words you just yell, “the cat is on the table” in whatever language you’re trying to speak.
VT: And doing that gives you a certain guarantee of navigating the situation safely – cats have nine lives, don’t they?
MF: Seven.
VT: Cats only have seven lives in Brazil?
JM: They have nine lives in Italy.
XW: Cats, luckily, have nine lives in China too.
MF: Well, what can I say? The third world is perpetually short-changed.
VT: What happens to the other two lives, to the remainder? Do they carry over somewhere?
DM: They end up as cousins at Schrödinger’s house.
AK: Cats rub up against furniture or doorways when they want to mark the item as “theirs.” They also spray furniture with urine to mark their territory. So “the cat is on the table” may mean that he just pissed on it to mark the territory. This cat on a table could be a hypothetical flag, just like the flag on the moon – a colonization.
DD: The cat is on the table the cat is on the table the cat is on the table the cat is on the table the cat is on the table the cat is on the table…it’s difficult to repeat this sentence really fast. The words break down, and there’s no cat and there’s no table. There’s only the sound of the cat on the table: Crssshhhh crssssssshhhhhh.
WPM: I think the term you may be looking for is “semantic satiation,” a related phenomenon in cognitive neuroscience.