Tom Stoppard speaks to the meat

In the New Yorker, “Tom Stoppard’s Charmed and Haunted Life: A new biography enables us to see beneath the intellectual dazzle of the playwright’s work” by Anthony Lane, in the print edition of 3/1/21:

In 2007, the playwright Tom Stoppard went to Moscow. He was there to watch over a production of his trilogy — “Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Salvage,” collectively known as “The Coast of Utopia.” The trilogy had opened in London in 2002, and transferred to Lincoln Center in 2006. Now, in a sense, it was coming home. The majority of the characters, though exiled, are from Russia (the most notable exception being a German guy named Karl Marx), and, for the first time, they would be talking in Russian, in a translation of Stoppard’s text. Ever courteous, he wanted to be present, during rehearsals, to offer notes of encouragement and advice. These were delivered through an interpreter, since Stoppard speaks no Russian. One day, at lunch, slices of an anonymous meat were produced, and Stoppard asked what it was. “That is,” somebody said, seeking the correct English word, “language.”

Since this is a blog mostly about language, you have no doubt seen where that answer came from.

Lane’s review continues:

The meat, of course, was tongue, and the anecdote — one of hundreds that Hermione Lee passes on to us in her new biography, “Tom Stoppard: A Life” (Knopf) — is perfect to a fault. If any writer was going to be on the receiving end of so deliciously forgivable a mistake, it had to be Stoppard.

We start with tongue referring to the bodypart (Latin lingua); move to this bodypart as seen conventionally as the organ of speech, yielding the metonymical tongue ‘language’; and move via a metonymy in a different direction, from bodypart to that part used as food (as in leg of lamb), tongue the meat. See my 6/5/20 posting “You’re a linguist; where’s your tongue?”

Here’s a notable Peanuts comic strip (from 2/3/63), featuring siblings Linus and Lucy, on the starting point:

Then a bit more deliciousness from Lane’s review:

Likewise, at a performance of his 1974 play, “Travesties,” how was he to know that the handsome fellow he was chatting with was not, as he believed, his French translator but was, in fact, Rudolf Nureyev? Is it somehow in Stoppard’s nature that Stoppardian events befall him, or is it only in his telling that they come to acquire that distinctive lustre? He emerges from Lee’s book as a magnetic figure to whom others cluster and swarm, and around whom happy accidents, chance encounters, new loves, and worldly goods are heaped like iron filings. According to one friend, he’s “good at being adored.”

And some raw materials for reflecting on the complex network of senses for the noun language, from NOAD:

1 [a] the principal method of human communication, consisting of words used in a structured and conventional way and conveyed by speech, writing, or gesture: a study of the way children learn language | [as modifier]:  language development. [b] a nonverbal method of expression or communication: a language of gesture and facial expression. 2 [a] a system of communication used by a particular country or community: the book was translated into twenty-five languages. [b] Computing a system of symbols and rules for writing programs or algorithms: a new programming language. 3 [a] the style of a piece of writing or speech: he explained the procedure in simple, everyday language. [b] the phraseology and vocabulary of a particular profession, domain, or group: legal language. [c] (usually as bad/strong language) coarse or offensive language: strong language.

[Morphosyntactic note: language in senses 1a and 3 is a M[ass] noun (as are tongue ‘language’ and tongue the food); while in senses 1b and 2 it is a C[ount] noun (as is tongue the body part).]

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