Rick's List — Literary Revisions Edition

At lunch the other day, seated in a booth and trying to determine why iced tea tastes different in the winter than the summer, I heard boisterous greetings. I looked up and saw two middle-aged guys, apparently old friends who hadn't seen one another in a while, and one of them actually said, "You working hard or hardly working?"

Mirth ensued, and I was happy for their reunion. But I'm not going to lie. It bothered me that people still say stuff like, "You working hard or hardly working?" In the realm of tricky wordplay, it's hardly Oscar Wilde or, for that matter, Carrot Top.

But I did a little research. No, it's not Wilde. BUT: The guy who coined the phrase was Charles Dickens! Seriously. In the final scene of the original manuscript of "A Tale of Two Cities," on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where Sydney Carton dies on the guillotine, there's a crossed-out section in Dickens' handwriting. It's still easily legible:

"Carton mounted the steps and, offering his cloaked and silent executioner a wry grin and the traditional tip of a silver coin, cracked, 'You working hard or hardly working?'"

Wow! In context, I like it more than "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Well, it turns out a lot of clichés we dismiss as cloddish aren't at all! A few examples:

1. We know and relish this passage from "Under the Volcano" by Malcolm Lowry:"I think I know a good deal about physical suffering. But this is worst of all, to feel your soul dying. I wonder if it is because tonight my soul has really died that I feel at the moment something like peace."

But Lowry's earlier version, penned while he was watching a golf tournament, was different: "I think I know a good deal about physical suffering — hold on ... GET IN THE HOLE!"

2. An early folio of "Hamlet" reads: "To thine own self be true. That's how I roll."

3. And while he didn't coin a cliche here, Ernest Hemingway showed amazing prescience about modern colloquialisms in this early conclusion to "The Sun Also Rises," with Jake and Brett in the taxi.

"'Yes,' (Jake) said. 'Isn't it pretty to think so?'

"Brett chewed her gum and said, 'I know, right?'"

4. Occasionally, there's the opposite dynamic, as in the time, mid-scene, actor Ashton Kutcher ad-libbed "Dude where's my car?" and it became the title of the film. He was SUPPOSED to say, "Dude, then all collapsed and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."  

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments

TRENDING

PODCASTS