By Anthony Deyal
As a Journalism teacher trying to get my students to understand the English language and its many nuances better, I made the mistake, at one session where I had to do an impromptu lesson on “Parts of Speech”, of asking a young man to explain what a “Homophone” was. The class, not sure where I was coming from, reacted with a combination of self-conscious laughter and shock.
I subsequently had to explain to the young man that the term “Homophone” had nothing to do with a voice-transmitting instrument used by someone sexually attracted to people of the same sex but is a word which has the same pronunciation different meanings, origin or spelling. I gave them the example of “rain”, “reign” and “rein” which are spelt differently but sound the same. I pointed out, however, that some words have the same spelling like “rose” meaning the flower and “rose” meaning someone had got up, but there is also the word “rows” meaning lines of people or objects in straight lines. I then told them this is where it gets complicated because “rows” of lines is different from noisy or violent arguments or “rows” which is spelt the same way but is pronounced differently.
Then there are “roes” or fish eggs. My explanation that words like those are called “Homographs” and there are also “Homonyms” and “Heteronyms” almost broke up the class as it degenerated into name-calling and the difference between a “whole week” and a “hole weak”.
I was eventually able to get into what was left of my agenda, a classic example of a homophone from the poet, Ogden Nash, “A flea and a fly in a flue / were imprisoned, so what could they do? / Said the fly, “Let us flee!” / “Let us fly!” said the flea/ So they flew through a flaw in the flue.” I had to explain that a “flaw” was not a “floor”, and a “flue” was not a “flu” or a cold but a piece of piping that allowed air to flow out of a chimney. Also, a “flea” and “to flee” were different. Then, before I knew it, I had flown into “fly” and that took me into my special territory of word origin and play that made my day.
In Rugby, there is a position known as a “Fly-half” who is normally the first receiver of the ball and even though he catches the ball, there is also a “Fly Catcher” or one of a family of birds that feed on insects that fly. Then, of course, there was Frank Sinatra, who popularised the Billy May song, “Come fly with me”. But there is another fly that takes the word into totally new territory that is not Spanish or even British. The Spanish one is supposed to be an aphrodisiac and the British, as in the term “I am so fly”, means that the person is supposedly “cool” or “awesome.”
The one I am thinking about has several other names in addition to “fly” and it consists of two rows of protruding teeth made from metal or plastic. More important, it can increase or decrease the size of an opening to allow or restrict the passage of objects! What is it? This fly started as an “Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure”, subsequently became a “Clasp Locker” and then, when in 1923 the B.F. Goodrich company decided to use the object as a fastener on a new type of rubber boots or galoshes, it was referred to as a “zipper” in the US, a “zip” in the UK or a “fly”. Because the fastener made it easier for children to dress themselves, it won the “Battle of the Fly” and its virtues were extended to include minimising, in men initially, “The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray.” Thus, was born the original “Fly” and not the one from Archie (1959) or DC Comics (1991).
The fly added not just a new twist, but a lot of zip to both fly swatters and fly catchers. As comedian George Burns, talking about older men, said, “First you forget names, then you forget faces. Next, you forget to pull your zipper up and finally, you forget to pull it down.”
Actually, the invention of the zipper added to the many ups and downs in our lives but we continued to zip along hoping for the best. Almost every tourism resort in the Caribbean has ZIP-lines and Jamaica has ZIP mail and even ZIP codes which may actually make it impossible for other people to open your mails or males. The male part of the “Zipp-a-Dee Doo-Dah” which was originally a song by James Basket and then popularised by Louis Armstrong, is where the trouble starts. As writer Cynthia Lewis said, “Nobody notices it when your zipper is up, but everyone notices when it’s down.” Emo Phillips, my favourite off-beat comedian, put it best, “I once heard two ladies going on and on about the pains of childbirth and how men don’t seem to know what real pain is. I asked if either of them ever got themselves caught in a zipper.”
As far back as 2005, comedians and others have come up with what at that time they considered polite ways to say “Your zipper is down” or “Your fly is open.” These include, “The cucumber has left the salad”; “You need to bring your tray table to the upright and locked position”; and “I always knew you were crazy, but now I can see you’re nuts!” Some of the younger Brits warn you that, “You’re flying.” What some Jamaicans tell you is, “Your shop is open” and what I once heard my mother say to my father was, “Your rum shop is open!” I was alarmed because I thought she was referring to the bar that my father owned at the time. I piped in, “You better close it quick before the police charge you!”
However, there are men who play with fire and get burned for their stupidity. One very full of himself was quietly told by a female store clerk, “Sir, your garage is open”. He decided to take it further and boasted for all the customers to hear, “I hope you had a good look at the Ferrari in my garage?” Putting him in his place, she replied calmly, “No sir, but I did get a glimpse of a small scooter with two flat tires.” In cases like this, Sir Winston Churchill had the perfect answer. When told that his fly was undone, he replied, “Dead birds don’t fall out of their nests.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen remembering that when told by a man in the street that his fly was half-open Sir Winston replied, “Or perhaps it is half-closed” and continued walking down the street.