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The nice thing about being over 60 is you know enough to know you don’t know everything, however much you’ve learned, writes Gina Barreca.
Maybe it's because I was the youngest or maybe it's because I was girl, but I've spent much of my life expecting to be chastised for asking stupid questions.
Some questions are stupid; make no mistake about it.
I was a 34-year-old stepmother, an adult with a full-time job, when - while travelling from New York to New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel with my new husband and teenage boys - I asked, by way of making conversation, "How do you think they got the water out when they built this?''
There was outright and prolonged laughter for a good five minutes, and for three of those minutes, I was laughing with them. But then I said, "I'm serious'', whereupon, for the next two minutes, laughter was shared only among those with a Y chromosome.
I didn't know that tunnels are dug under the earth.
Why would I? I'd never thought about it. Only later did I learn, for example, that the phrase "undermine'' came from the process of digging tunnels - or "mines'' - under a castle during a siege to weaken its foundation by men who were called "sappers'' after the French term for "trench'', and that "sapper'' is a term for military engineers.
Are you surprised that I've lived in fear of betraying my bone-ignorance about life's most basic concepts? The Lincoln Tunnel escapade was not the first or the last of such displays.
Last week, while drafting a note to another writer who was wondering if she was being paid enough for a project, I found myself in the midst of what seemed like a great discovery. Half-listening to the radio while at the keyboard, I found my own prose informed by the current news cycle. I told her to make sure she was getting enough "quid'' for her "pro quo.''
The only reason I consciously played with the language was because we'd both spent time in London. I was being cute. I'd gone on to live in the UK for several years, and never once did I wonder about the origin of the term.
But as I typed the word "quid''. it occurred to me that the English call their pounds "quids'' - the way Americans refer to dollars, for example, as "bucks'' - and I felt as if Beethoven's Ninth had started to play in my head.
Is the "quid'' in British slang really from the Latin? Does it mean "this'' in trade for some "that''?
Was the Roman Conquest still informing the Brits by keeping a few Latinate terms (along with Hadrian's Wall and straight roads) as reminders?
I looked it up, and most etymologists agree, although some will argue that it came from the Gaelic, and others will argue that it came from "Squids'' who were sailors, and others will argue that it came from their own minds after they removed the tinfoil. The most authoritative bets, however, are on quid pro quo.
I was grandly pleased with myself until, suddenly and viscerally, the old fear gripped me: had everybody known this but me? Was this a Lincoln Tunnel thing? Was I the only person ever to have spent more than six months or six pounds in London and not made this connection?
Here's the nice thing about being over 60: you know enough to know you don't know everything, however much you've learned. Once it occurred to me that I had no idea whether this was common knowledge, I needed to know.
So I asked.
I'll admit it: I was gratified that most of my friends had never made the connection either, not even those who had lived there. I was slightly less gratified and far more deeply reassured to learn that many more of my friends didn't care one way or another about the origin of the phrase but were delighted that I appeared bizarrely thrilled to be in possession of this tiny and possibly entirely incorrect point relating to foreign currency.
None of them undermined me, and I'm not going to dig deeper. I'm happy with this.
- Gina Barreca is an author and board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut. - TCA