Saturday, November 29, 2014

Old Soldiers and Old Habits

Brigitte was clipping papers this morning early when two thoughts occurred to her. The first was: “I’m such an inveterate clipper.” The second—which is quite natural with her—was to wonder about the etymology of that word, inveterate.

Sure enough, telling me about it, and asking what my guess was—“And just tell me, don’t look it up yet!”—she provided her own guess at an etymology. It was that that veterate portion might have something to do with veterans. My own clumsy attempt is not worth wasting time on. She was quite right.

And that is because the word veteran comes from vetus (generic veteris) meaning “old, aged, advanced in years; of a former time.” This much courtesy of Online Etymology Dictionary. By a slight twist and turn, the root is used in inveterate as meaning “of long standing” and therefore “chronic.” The “in” here means “of.” Brigitte is a paper clipper going way, way back. Old clippers never die, you might say, they just snip away…

Which made me wonder about that phrase. Here is what seems to be its origin. I found it here. General Douglas MacArthur used the phrase and made it newly famous. As always with true wisdom, it had is roots in everyday life, here of soldiering. The text follows:

Old Soldiers Never Die

There is an old cookhouse, far far away
Where we get pork and beans, three times a day.
Beefsteak we never see, damn-all sugar for our tea
And we are gradually fading away.

cho: Old soldiers never die,
        Never die, never die,
        Old soldiers never die
        They just fade away.

Privates they love their beer, ’most every day.
Corporals, they love their stripes, that’s what they say.
Sergeants they love to drill. Guess them bastards always will
So we drill and drill until we fade away.

Another and perhaps more authentic version (it dates from 1900 and was written by an anonymous soldier) is to be found here.

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