Having a good time in gear right for occasion

ONE of the more concise but descriptive expressions in the English language came in Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 when Mrs Stowe wrote "dirty slop would unaccountably deluge them from above when in full gala dress".

Aldous Huxley suggested in 1934 how many times a gala dinner should be held, as distinct from an ordinary dinner, presumably without the slop coming from above.

These days the organisers of some occasions feel as if they are being helpful when they add to an invitation to a gala occasion "come as you are".

I was delighted to see in the Ararat Advertiser an attempt to maintain the traditions of gala. A photograph in the Advertiser showed a gold bow tie, a rarity in many menswear shops these days.

Gala is one of those words dropping in status as our living language undergoes a transformation. Some see gala as meaning no more than "good time".

The word was originally Arabic, meaning fine garments. It moved into English, via Italian and French, retaining that meaning of fine clothes, in particular with men wearing a tie. The Oxford records its original Arabic spelling as khil'a, a presentation garment. The expression gala dress came during the 19th century to mean dress for a special occasion.

A comment in 1625 was that "the king and the whole court put on galas".

As late as 1964 a McCall's sewing magazine said women who were "really dressed up" would "feel more gala".

If you get an invitation to a gala event, put on your best clobber. Otherwise, in the words of John O'Grady, sometimes known as Nino Culotta, you could become the greatest bloody galah this wide of the rabbit-proof fence.

Having said that, I note that Barack Obama attended a function recently, described by a television station as a gala event, and he was the only person not wearing a tie.

ooo

A BIG event coming to cinemas soon will be Les Miserables, starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe and a host of other characters who look as if they have never been to a gala function.

If you want a good, long read you might tackle the book, but two warnings: firstly, don't expect to finish it before the jug boils, and secondly keep a dictionary handy.

I am working my way through it, but I might have to wait for the Hugh and Russell show to see how it ends. Just about every line has a word to send you to the dictionary, but unfortunately the dictionaries I consulted don't seem to have heard of some of those words either.

Victor Hugo obviously had nothing else to do when he wrote Les Miserables. He spent pages upon pages telling the reader what a particular property looked like, or why Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo or what the nuns had for breakfast.

And next time you go to the bistro at your local club and fight your way through the crowds you could think of the battle of Waterloo. The Russians of that period apparently had no time to lose and they wanted their food in a hurry, so one story among many is that they would cry out "bystro", which meant something like "quickly", while they were waiting for their stew.

Some French linguists, however, dispute this easy explanation, asking why the word went into hibernation until end of the 19th century. They suggest the word came from a type of aperitif called a bistrouille, served in some restaurants.

But having stood in the queue at a few clubs I like the Russian version better.

lbword@midcoast.com.au

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