A Little Rhetorical Magic
It's funny how it works. And how often it happens. Quite easily and quite often. Moving along in earnest discussion about some esoterica or another, your own argument mounting, you arrive suddenly at a place where some fact or figure would do so nicely in support. But of course you haven't done the research, don't really know what you're talking about, or why you're in the conversation at all.
So you do the only thing your silly ignorance will let you do to escape the momentary bind you're in: wave your hand in the general direction of the truth, tighten your shoulders vaguely and shrug, "oh, you know what I mean." Quickly, quickly, you pass the buck on to the listener, displace your responsibility for whatever nonsense you're mumbling.
The hope is that the listener will be too cowardly to admit his or her ignorance. The hope is that we can discreetly displace responsibility for our position, ignorant, slack, uniformed as it is.
Like all serious evils, this behavior takes many forms. One instance of this rhetorical recklessness outstrips most others in sheer power and elan. In one deployment it works all kinds of slick magic: it saves the speaker from accountability, establishes (wink-wink) an intimacy with the listener that only a shared and special secret can provide, even wields rhetorical power over space, time and motion. Science cores would do well to study this phenomenon. The phrase?: Happy Belated Birthday.
Let's examine this.
Birthday: The main noun of the phrase. A compound word, made of two nouns, the first of which, "birth" serves as more an adjective, describing the more nounly "day," indicating the day on which someone was birthed.
This compound noun is then given a modifier: Happy, Quite obviously an adjective meaning joy, pleasure, balloons of hope, warm fuzzies, two kinds of ice cream, finding your skate key...It is less a simple description than a sort of prophecy, full of hope.
Then there's Belated. Here is where the real trouble starts. Belated, obviously another form of late, means "too late," "tardy." So this word set in the between Happy and Birthday transforms the phrase into a too late, finding your skate key, bubble of glee, day on which someone was birthed.
But this is wrong, all wrong. Correctly stated the phrase should run "Happy Birthday, Belatedly" or "I'm belated in wishing you Happy Birthday" or "It is an instance of belatedness in which I wish you Happy Birthday." Or "This wish for a happy day of birth is given unto you belatedly as I am slack, trifling forgetful, not a true friend at all."
This wonderful little magic, this power over space and time is all packed tightly in the simple adjectival employment of the word belated. Its amazing the wonders it can work. Theoretically, a person's birthday can continue as long as there are people who forget and then remember and say Happy Belated Birthday.
So, if my birthday is November 9, and my roommate forgets and shows up at my door on November 10th and wishes me Happy Birthday, my two kinds of ice cream, finding my skate key day of birth immediately becomes two days instead of the usual one. Now, I am entitled to all the benefits and joys of two happy birthdays--four kinds of ice cream, finding my skate key twice.
As cowardly as this rhetorical irresponsibility is, it is not without its merits. Something so powerful can most certainly be put to useful ends. I could use some extended days throughout the school year, not just on my birthday. This past exam period, especially.
I think in May I might just try this little magic out. On Monday May 21st, the day of my Shakespeare exam, I think I'll just keep hitting the snooze button, or just not set my alarm at all, sleep as late as I want, study at my leisure. On the 26th, I'll show up at Marge's door, pen and blue book in hand, and proclaim in earnest intent, "Miserable Belated Examination Day."
She will smile knowingly, powerless to counteract my displacing magic, to set the universe right. Then, she'll usher me in and administer the exam for which I had five slow and leisurely days to study.
I may have to bear a few dirty looks from my classmates but that's a small price to pay for my rhetorical irresponsibility and wanton disruption of time. And my big, fat "A" will be comfort enough.
W. Cinque Henderson '94 sicked out of his fall exams. This will never happen again.