My student was writing on the great Middle Eastern framed collection of tales One Thousand and One Nights (commonly in English “The Arabian Nights”). Drawn from many cultures over centuries, and still accruing additions (“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” probably authentic Middle Eastern tales, were added to the Nights by European translators in the 19th century), it is a wonderful work.
You know the frame: the Persian king Shahryar, sickened by his wives’ infidelity, vows to marry a new wife every day, bed her, and kill her the next morning before she has the chance to cheat on him. Scheherazade, the daughter of his vizier, insists on becoming the next wife; the vizier reluctantly consents. (She hopes to teach the king the error of his ways and, incidentally, save all the other women in the kingdom.) She asks to bring her sister with her to the bridal chamber, and after the king has consummated his marriage the sister asks Scheherazade to tell a story. The rest is, as they say, history: dawn breaks before the story can be finished; and the king, like all of us needing to know how it comes out, lets her live. But the next night, the story’s ending slips into the beginning of another story…
My students love this work. But something besides the sister slipped into this one particular student’s summary:
“Every night she would tell the king a story and leave off on a cliff note.”
Those of us old enough, or addicted enough to “old movies,” to have seen The Perils of Pauline and its ilk know the expression is “cliff-hanger.” Even some children’s cartoons and Wild West tales and the occasional spy movie have benefited from the suspense of that lone figure hanging from his or her fingertips over some abyss or other, the potential rescuer galloping/driving/flying frantically, the audience wondering “will he be in time?”
The breaks in One Thousand and One Nights can’t really be called cliff-hangers. Yes, sometimes there’s peril. But peril isn’t the constant here: it’s fascination. The stories have many complications, and the reader can’t wait to see how those complications can possibly be resolved.
But my student didn’t say “cliff-hanger.” He said “cliff note.”
And most of us know what’s lodged in that mind, don’t we? Cliff’s Notes! I will offer a link to the Wikipedia page for Cliff’s Notes, conscious that this time Wikipedia IS an appropriate source.
Today’s student is more likely, I’m told, to turn to Spark Notes, the rival “study guides” initiated by four Harvard undergrads to tap the market created by that one Nebraska publisher’s employee. But Cliff’s is still around. What’s more, “Cliff’s Notes” has entered our lexicon as a way of saying “simplistic short form” of something more complicated and lengthy, or simply “cheat sheet.” Every teacher knows that these publications, whether or not serious about being “supplementary” to reading the original works, are for many students the substitute for being actually prepared, or actually familiar with the experience of a text.
My student should have written “and stop midway, leaving the king hanging” or “leaving the story hanging.” “Hanging” was evidently linked with “cliff” somewhere in the recesses of his mind, but once he came up with “cliff” the word that followed naturally was “notes.” That was the much more strongly imprinted phrase. Alas.
The great irony, the second level of delight in this error, is that if Scheherazade had actually used Cliff’s Notes her first story would have been done in a trice, and she would have been a goner at sunrise.
P.S. I’ll be away from the computer for a few days. Read something!