“The American Revolution made us a nation independent from England, where…”

Factually accurate, somewhat patriotic in tone but not jingoistic: what’s your problem, Teach?

Everyone who has ever studied a language is acquainted with the term, or at least with the concept, idiomatic—or, as that language-instruction book Mark Twain rejoiced in would put it, “English as she is spoke.” A language as it is spoken by its own people will always contain some phrases or grammatical quirks that cannot be directly translated, or that defy parsing. Instances of this are generally referred to as idioms, and the language as used by native speakers is referred to as idiomatic language. You usually can’t learn it from a textbook.

Partly because the English language developed in such a wandering way, and partly because idiomatic language can embody cultural as well as linguistic history, English is particularly challenging to use idiomatically. And my student here went forward within his sentence with an idiomatic expression he was definitely not fully in control of:

“The American Revolution made us a nation independent from England, where every man is entitled to the sweat of his own brow.”

Now, “the sweat of one’s brow” is figurative language, or perhaps in the case of a commonly-used figure we may say an idiom, for hard work, especially physical toil. The farmer, halfway through plowing his rocky New England acre, pauses to mop his forehead. If the only way he can make a living, or enjoy the fruits of his labor, is by his own physical toil, we say he lives by the sweat of his brow. (I suppose if he’s enjoying fruits, my picture of him would work better if I made him pause to mop his brow on the ladder of his twentieth apple tree during harvest season; but “fruits” itself is figurative language for “results” or “products.” This paragraph is beginning to take me far afield (so to speak)! To return:

I knew what my student meant—The Revolution established the United States, where no landlord took the profits of the peasant’s toil. See, for instance, the arrangement that was already in the process of being put into place so effectively in Ireland, the landlord-tenant system that would exacerbate the “potato famine” there in the nineteenth century, like the feudal system that had maintained such sharp social and economic divisions in much of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. The worker toiled and sweated; the landlord (or the lord) took the profits and lived large.

So throwing off the yoke of England meant throwing off all vestiges of the feudal system.

What my student meant to say was that every man was entitled to the fruits of his own labor. Every man was entitled to benefit from the sweat of his brow. And he almost did say that.

The problem, of course, is that word “own.” When “own” joins the sentence and insists on modifying “brow,” a secondary idea creeps in with it. No longer is the student distinguishing who benefits from the sweat of a man’s brow, distinguishing between legitimate beneficiary and the implied illegitimate beneficiary, the “lord” of the English system; now he is identifying whose sweat constitutes the benefit.

So here’s the picture I get from this disfigurative language: Said farmer pauses in his plowing to mop his brow. In dashes a representative of the King of England, who snatches the handkerchief: “This sweat belongs to the King! Carry on!” If he’s a generous representative, he may have brought a soggy piece of cloth with him: “Here! This is John Doe’s handkerchief. This sweat’s for you!” And the farmer, saved by the Revolution, staunchly replies, “No! I am an American! That is MY sweat, from MY brow, and I’m entitled to it!” Fifty Minutemen emerge from behind the bushes, muskets at the ready, to support him, and the King’s representative skulks off (perhaps resigned to giving the King the sweat of John Doe’s brow instead). Who gets the actual fruits of his toil seems too unimportant to mention.

What will the farmer do with that hard-won sweat of his? I hate to think he will save it up to leave to his descendants…

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““The American Revolution made us a nation independent from England, where…”

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Well, they saved the tears of saints supposedly….(yours might qualify, too)
    Idiomatic language causes problems – I worked with researchers from other countries – very smart people who made excellent grades in English classes. But we had to struggle with what they wrote and what their writing was actually saying.
    It was hard to talk with them about it. “But this is correct English. I’m sure. I know. I made good scores in it”
    When all we could say was “Yes, but that’s not they way we say it here.” They always suspected we were just causing trouble.

    • RAB

      I worked with a Japanese student who was writing his thesis for the MBA—his dean had requested that I help him edit his work to make it more idiomatic. Very bright young man, but his extended discussion of the optimum conditions for “growing up cows” just about killed me. “Raising cattle,” he meant. Well, that’s what he said, isn’t it? Some language we got here.

Leave a Reply or Share a Horror.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: