Tag Archives: Great Dane

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: What a Dog’s Bark Means

Ferdinand de Saussure

Words are powerful things. There are lots of theories as to why: a brilliant Swiss linguistic theorist named Ferdinand de Saussure suggested that they are significance bearers, and he distinguished between the signifier and thing signified. In as much as he sees the connection between the two as arbitrary, he never really explains the shape of words, like say why the word “bark” is used to describe the way a dog barks (where “woof” is obviously the onomatopoeic equivalent). But he did correctly talk about their capacity to carry a “sign” that points to the thing they are signifying.

The only way a word can lose significance then, is to strip it of its meaning by endlessly adding meanings to it. When I was a much younger person, at the very inception of my career as a writer, I remember distinctly being at a conference at Rutgers University in New Jersey where I heard one of the speakers explain this phenomenon: he pointed to a chair in the room and said that it could be called a stool instead of a chair because it could be used as a stool. A chair, he said, could also be a ladder, if you’re changing a light bulb, or a night table, if you keep your water glass on it at night. A chair, he said, is not just a chair and, he added, it can be quite something other than a chair. The word chair, he said, therefore has no meaning. Words, he declared, simply have no meaning per se. They are arbitrary; they are so flexible that they have lost their elasticity.

But he wasn’t finished. He went further: nothing, he said, has any meaning. And, he added, as a result, there are no laws or rules that pertain to any individual. All rules, he boldly added, are, like words, artificial constructs devoid of meaning. Life, he concluded, has no meaning. Such a point of view may sound like a grand reductio ad absurdum, and in fact it is. I should, too, note carefully here that this speaker was not kidding around: he actually meant every word he said. To his credit, he had followed the path whither it in fact leads, into the great abyss of nihilism.

I wonder, though, if words did have real meaning, where the path would lead. Put another way, one can see that “bark” can mean both the skin of the tree and what my dog does when a burglar jiggles the lock on my door, or “love” can signify the passionate act that a young couple makes as easily as it can connote the compassionate act of hugging a disabled elderly woman whom you’ve only just met in a nursing home. Yet even though the words “love” and “bark” have remarkable range, that doesn’t mean they are devoid of meaning. The man burgling my house, unless he is hearing impaired, decides to rob another house; (I have a Great Dane with a very deep and ferocious-sounding bark). The young couple doesn’t need to be told what love is, nor does the person in the nursing home receiving the hug. They know. They know because words do in fact have meaning. They bear significance because the thing they signify has meaning. The life of the disabled person has meaning. The passionate love of the young couple has meaning. And any burglar can tell you that a Great Dane’s bark most certainly has meaning.

So, I’m sorry to have to report to the famous lecturer of many years ago, that he was simply wrong. A chair can be used as a nightstand or a ladder, but it is still a chair. Words have meaning because, in fact, life does, too. And that, in case you were wondering, is the real meaning of a barking dog.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Problem with Great Danes

One has a number of problems when one has a Great Dane. I know; I have one.

The obvious one is the constant question, “Are these dogs really Danish?” But that is the least of your problems, even when someone gets more specific and asks, “Why are they called ‘Danes’”?

It’s a good question. Like crêpes, which are essentially just thin, eggy pancakes, it all started with the French. As tension rose between Germany and France in the eighteenth century, the French wisely decided to change the name of the dog from (in archaic and modern English) “German Dogge” or “German Mastiff” to Grand Danois.[1] The idea was, of course, something like, “Well, Holland is near Germany, but Dutch Dogge sounds like Deutsche Dogge, so that won’t work; how about Belgium? No, too far away from Germany. What about Swedish Dogge? No, too far north. What about Denmark? Oui, parfait!”

And so it happened that the Great Dane became Danish. But that is not their problem. Their problem is their size and the lies it causes us to tell. First, people come to you house and they say, “My goodness! Your dog is large!”

Of course you had noticed this. Now all you can do is to reply, “Yes, but he’s nice” or “He’s a gentle giant.” Or you can lie and say, “When I got him from the pound, he was so small and cute. Who knew he would grow so abundantly?” I’ve tried that one, but I was technically lying, because I knew he would grow. His feet were huge.

Another lie you can tell only works sometimes. You can tell the person, “Yes, he’s large, but he’s a teacup Dane.” That usually slows down even the savviest interlocutor.

“A teacup Dane?” he or she will invariably reply.” Really, I had no idea they bred such animals.”

But then that person will take a second look at your dog and add, “It’s awfully large for a teacup Dane.”

To which, on the one hand, you might be forced to respond, if you’re honest, “Well, he’s on the small side for a Dane—and I was only kidding about the ‘teacup’ bit.”

On the other hand, you might be less than honest and simply say, “Well, they weren’t very successful in breeding them small.”

To which, your visitor will respond, “I’ll say they were not. He’s huge.”

The third problem and occasionally worse problem with Danes, of course, is their tail.   It is at precisely the wrong level. Your dog can easily hit your visiting nephew in the eye or face—of course by accident and merely out of exuberance.

The tail also can strike hard objects and bleed; and when it is bleeding it can fling drops of blood everywhere and/or smear blood all over your brand new and expensive wallpaper. Yes, they do that.

Worse yet, the tail can strike your male visitors in the private area and double them over in pain. Yes, that has happened, and in fact happens pretty frequently. It is embarrassing and, if it happens to happen to your boss, it can cost you your annual raise.

Profanity!” the visiting pastor will say who has come over to visit your ailing parent or has shown up for your child’s baptism or confirmation. “Surprising profanity!” Yes, even more than once, because the tail can swing to the same spot twice in rapid succession, even dropping your pastor to one knee in pain. You can yell at the dog all you want but, one must recall, he has the excuse of being Danish and speaking no English, and in any case he did not do it on purpose. It was an accident, just as your red-spot-bespeckled and bestreaked wallpaper was an accident, as your nephew now blind in one eye was an accident. No good yelling at the dog; he speaks no English.

And that is the problem with Great Danes. Their tails and the tales the cause you to tell. And now you know to be wary of both.

[1] Frederick Becker, The Great Dane – Embodying a Full Exposition of the History, Breeding Principles, Education, and Present State of the Breed (2005).

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Donkeys, Snakes and Other Talking Animals 

verona streetTwo weeks ago I wrote a blog about a parrot with a Brooklyn accent.  And just when I thought that I was done with talking animals, I went to Verona which made me think of a conversation I once had with my fifth oldest child. She was not born in America; in fact, she was born in Ethiopia, and she came to America with little English. When I was walking her home from school one afternoon, after her ESL class, she mentioned to me that she was hungry, so I told her that I would fix her a little snack when we got home.

“I don’t want one,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, “I thought you were hungry.”

“I am,” she said.

“Well then,” I responded, “I will fix you a snack.”

“No, no, no,” she said, “I don’t want one.”

“How hungry are you?”

“Just a little.”

“Then a snack would be perfect.  Just a little one. There’s no need to fix you a big one.”

“No, no, no. I don’t want one.”

Only later did I realize that her hunger pangs followed by moments of apparently complete lack of hunger were engendered by her misunderstanding of the word snack. She thought, of course, that I was saying snake.  Now I know that some of my Texan friends eat snake.  But I am not a herpavor.  I come from Pennsylvania where, to my knowledge, no one eats snakes.  But my daughter thought I was referring to making her eat a small snake (as opposed to a large one) after school.

Now I had almost forgotten about this event until we arrived in Verona two days ago and, on the advice of an acquaintance, went to one of the finer dining establishments in this beautiful town, a five minute walk from the House of Juliette, which features, of course, the balcony said to have inspired the bard.  juliets balconyDrifting on from the mildly (if tragically) romantic courtyard of Juliette, we came to the aforementioned restaurant, one that astounded me, only in part because the tortellini that I ordered was deliciously garnished with fine northern Italian Balsamic—real Balsamic comes from either Reggio Emilia or Modena (whose accent rests on the first syllable).  balsamicIndeed, the pasta that I had chosen was delightful, far more delightful than the menu which featured, to my great consternation, both pasta with a meat sauce made of horse flesh and another with a donkey ragù.  Good heavens, I thought, it has come full circle.  Now I have become my daughter—but this time they really are eating the forbidden animal.  And the couple at the next table fulfilled my worst fears, he ordering the horse and she, with a chuckle that sounded to me a veritable bray, the donkey.

Now this seemed to me especially wrong on two counts.  First, having been a mule skinner for much of my childhood years, I can never brook the notion of eating the father (a jackass) of one of my beloved coworkers—hybrid, yes, but certainly almost human. Second, the woman who ordered the spaghetti a la donkey ragù herself cavorted in an asinine manner.  I’m not sure what nationality she was, but suffice it to say that the manner in which she displayed her discerning palate was a bit too much for my taste.  Thus it seemed to me that a bit of cannibalism might just have been going on at table 12.

alexander
Alexander mosaic, detail

Coincidentally or not, there are only two animals in the Bible—that is the donkey and the snake—ever reported to have spoken Hebrew (presumably Hebrew).  The ass, was of course, that of Balaam and the snake, well, that was Eve’s little friend in the Garden.  But the horse, while never having been said to speak in the Bible, has human characteristics, too, as anyone who has owned one can tell you.  Some horses have been very famous.  Need I mention Silver, of Lone Ranger fame, who spoke, or rather at least understood, perfect English and would come when called and do exactly as he was told; or Bucephalus, who despite his ox-headed name was said to have been the best of horses in antiquity, his master’s favorite and often depicted in artistic renditions along with Alexander.  The equus of Caesar was said to have been equally beloved of his master.  Both were said to have been portrayed with hooves resembling human feet.[1]  And should I even mention Mr. Ed?  Of course it’s a horse, of course, of course, but not ever meant to be a dinner course.

So, when the waiter offered me the spaghetti a la donkey ragù, I, as my daughter had once said to me, found myself stating repetitively, “No, no, no…!”  I was amazed at how visceral my response was, but I simply could not and would not dare even think of eating a donkey or a horse on basically the same principal that my dear daughter had innately adopted vis-à-vis even a small snake. Even though the waiter insisted it was tasty; even though the woman at table twelve was by then ravenously devouring it; even though it is part of Veronese culture, new to me on this trip (new since Switzerland, where I was two days ago, studying more manuscripts in lovely Bern); even though I normally try to embrace as fully as possible a new culture when I am travelling. In spite of all this, I simply could not eat an animal like Bucephalus or Balaam’s ass, or even Eve’s slithering sidekick.

Spaghetti a la ragù d’asino
Spaghetti a la ragù d’asino (sauce of donkey)

Wait, what about dogs and cats?  They don’t speak in the Bible, but they certainly have human characteristics and are a part of many a family in ways that snakes and donkeys normally are not. Well, that can be gotten around easily enough.  First, the dog is the one animal in the Bible whose name is everywhere, just written backwards, of course. So, the Eucharist notwithstanding, I think we can safely say that we should not eat dogs on roughly the same biblical principal as not eating donkeys.  It’s a bit harder to come up with a biblical refuge for cats.  The best I can find is about as convincing as Mr. Trump’s by now quasi infamous (but somehow not damaging to him) “Two Corinthians” reference.  Still for the sake of the species, I will try. The word “according to,” used for titles of each of the gospels in Greek, is “kata,” which is easily shortened to “kat/cat.”  So, cats, it seems, are if only indirectly, like dogs, in the Bible and thus sort of protected from being dinner—at least according to me.  Besides, our own dog, Knight, is a Great Dane, and thus qualifies both under the backwards goD heading and the horse category, as well.

But I will eat balsamic, and I will eat palatable pastas in peculiar places.  So I leave you with but a trifle this week–you should try a trifle as well, or I should say a truffle, which in Italy are fresh and quite lovely in late November. Indeed, though I normally recommend trying the odd foods and accepting the strange things that life throws at you, I don’t recommend eating animals that can talk or whose names can be somehow manipulated as to being semi-divine, even if they can’t quite talk.  And I do recommend warm Verona and snowy Bern, both lovely. Bon apetit, mon ami.

[1] Miriam Griffin, ed. A Companion to Julius Caesar (Cambridge, 2015).