Every morning when I wake up, I follow a little ritual. The alarm sounds and my very first thought is, “Holy shit, where am I?” Yeah I know that’s a little odd but I guess I’ve lived in a lot of places so it happens even when I’m at home.
The second thing that happens is that I get out of bed and then there’s always a song “playing” in my head. Actually it’s usually just a snippet of a song, occasionally an ad jingle but usually just a line or two from a song. And then I usually sit down in front of the computer and try to find the song. If I listen to it a few times, usually it goes away and then I can get on with the rest of my day.
Recently I awoke with a little phrase in Romanian in my head. I found the song it belongs to easily enough but no matter how many times I replayed it, I couldn’t quite understand what the words were. I did a little search for the lyrics and it seemed like my ears were hearing a word in English. However it wasn’t just any word in English but one that was so old that my great-grandfather would have been using it with his friends as the punchline of a joke.
The word in this song I was hearing was flit and the line in the song went cu flit mi-a dat. Since he’s talking about his wife (in a rather hilarious pro-feminism repartee actually) the literal translation would be “with flit she to me had given” or “she gave me the flit”. But what in the world does that mean?
I asked a few people around here if they knew but they did not. It’s clearly a somewhat rare phrase as even on some of the lyrics pages the word is written incorrectly, which wouldn’t happen if it were better well-known. But then I went to the DEX (Romanian dictionary) and saw that the improbable was actually correct – it was from English from many generations ago, something I confirmed via a blog post in Romanian that I found.
Holy shit! Before World War 2, there was an extremely popular insecticide full of horrendous chemicals (including DDT) marketed under the trade name Flit. I have to assume that it was either sold here in Romania as well or at least well-known enough that it got assimilated into the Romanian language.
Therefore cu flit mi-a dat is a rather humorous and colorful expression meaning (literally) “she blasted me with bug spray” but more conventionally as “she gave me the rough side of her tongue” or perhaps (my favorite) “she gave me the business”. Love that imagery in the Romanian phrase!
Notice anything familiar about the characters in the advertisement above? If so, that’s because they were drawn by none other than Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Yes! Before he began writing books for children, he illustrated ad copy for a number of companies, including the one you see above. While Flit was already a best-seller before he drew several ads for them, it was Geisel himself who came up with “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” which was so popular that it was used as a catchphrase and would’ve been something that my great-grandfather would’ve easily understood.
Doctor Seuss is a brilliant author and if you’ve never read his books, I highly urge you to do so. Although he was born in the United States, his parents spoke only German and he had to learn English the hard way, just as millions of people, including Romanians, have done. And so some of his books deal with all the crazy aspects of English, the odd spelling, etc, and are wonderfully encouraging for people learning the language.
One of his most famous books for children is The Cat in the Hat, which is not only a brilliant story but was written after his agent sent him a list of 225 words that first grade (6 to 7 years old) children should know. Seuss then wrote the book using nothing but these simple words, 221 (out of a total of 236 in the book) having but a single syllable.
But my name being Sam, of course I’ve always had a special place in my heart for his book Green Eggs and Ham which is all about this odd character who is one of the most persistent salesmen in all of history, ultimately convincing the protagonist (named “Sam I Am”) to eat the titular green eggs and ham.
I’m not the only one who loves that story. Dr. Seuss died in September 1991 and I remember watching when the American show Saturday Night Live decided to honor him with a reading of “Green Eggs and Ham” by Jesse Jackson, Junior. I’m definitely not a big fan of Jackson’s politics but his oratory style is unmatched and the passion with which he reads this children’s tale brings tears to my eyes. As you watch the video below, you can hear that many in the audience are just as moved by it as I was.