The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
The Cat is on the Table. A potential neologism
Page 3 of 8
CF: Well my hope is that some subtext might pop out from in between the cat and the table. The phrase feels bound up in something else, something somehow more collusive and cryptographic, suggestive, or some kind of code language. I mean, in the Rosetta Stone, “the cat is on the table” is literally a password. Well, it’s really a pass-phrase – if your Italian accent is off, you have to keep repeating “il gatto è sul tavolo” over and over until you get it right, or you can’t move on.
PB: Did you know that in the Second World War, the BBC frequently broad-casted nonsensical “personal messages” through their overseas service? They were really commands for secret agents. One message was the inverse of your phrase “Mimi’s cat is asleep under the table.” Those agents weren’t talking about cats, tables, sleep, or Mimi. I suspect that “the cat is on the table” was originally a means of passage – a shared code for only the initiated to enact, burrowing through radio waves, but fashioned to pass unnoticed. But then again, “the cat is on the table” isn’t a consistent, regularized code to be memorized, but maybe more of a “one time code.”
CF: What do you mean by “one time code”?
PB: A prearranged signal intended to be used only once to convey a simple message – either to execute or abort some plan or to confirm that it has succeeded or failed.
CF: So, like military surplus, the cat trickled out of the language of espionage and found a lasting home in the Rosetta Stone software?
JM: I once heard “the cat is on the table” described as a “typical sentence” for learning English.
WPM: One of the insights linguistics gives you is that there’s no such thing as a “typical sentence.” Language is too varied for a category as broad as “sentence” to have any kind of meaningful exemplar. I imagine “the cat is on the table” is a favorite phrase of language teachers because it’s short, simple, and describes a culturally non-specific everyday situation. I call this kind of bland locution “clean-room sentences” and they’re a genre unto themselves. You’re always having to come up with phrases on the spot to
illustrate this or that grammatical phenomenon, so linguistics examples over-represent objects and situations that occur in classrooms and offices. Pens are always sitting on tables. People are eternally giving one another books.
CF: It’s a sort of inside joke at this point, isn’t it?
WPM: Actually, jokes about language instruction form a sub-genre of comedy that travels well. The comedian Eddie Izzard has a bit about the only French he knows being a few classroom non-sequiturs like “the mouse is on the chair” and “the monkey is in the tree,” so whenever he goes to France he has to take along a mouse, a chair, and a monkey. I have a language-instruction tape bit in which I say things like, “Pedro is having a party. Say who he will invite,” as deeply and melodiously as I can.
CS: This is about language then, but not quite about conversation. If anything, our being here and trying to figure out what “the cat is on the table” actually means is similar to having a conversation with a computer program, or to the similar type of conversation that we might have with a language tape: people talking to a record, and the record talking to them – a single call, and a bunch of responses.