Description During a Spring Break in Greece, a seemingly preposterous etymology found in a cheap battery-powered dictionary taps into the power of an ancient courtship ritual for an adorable somnambulator and his fellow English major.
|Updated||01 Jun 2005|
We English majors do like our words.
My roommate Seth and I acknowledge ourselves as word geeks, even among fellow English majors. He's got the thick unabridged edition of the famous English dictionary; I've got one of those impulse-buy electronic versions.
I've also got a thing for Seth, a tall and cute golden-skinned blonde whose thick reading glasses and studious demeanor only heighten my attraction for him—that I try to hide.
I'm not sure if he's aware that I'm wild about him, but he always hangs out with me, which I like.
And the fact that he likes me is helpful when I rescue him from his occasional nocturnal sleepwalking forays, since he's less likely to be frightened by someone he knows. (I always quietly talk to him and take him gently by the hand and lead him back to his bed.)
We're always looking up words and phrases to see where they come from. For example, whoever thought up the term "easy as pie" was more likely talking about eating one than baking one.
And there's room for different opinions about various Greek and Latin words, among others. For example, why would "taur," meaning a bull, be part of the word "centaur," which is a half-man, half-horse, not half-bull?
I like Seth's take on that one. I remember the almost wistful way he told me his personal opinion on that question: "The key is that language has preserved our ancestral dreams of having four legs—I think the ancients used the horse or bull or whatever as a ruse to camouflage what we really want."
Anyway, when Spring Break rolls around, we go to the Greek islands, Seth leaves his heavy dictionary in the dorm and I bring my battery-powered one, so the search for meanings goes on.
For instance, we were lying there on the beach working on our tans when Seth came across the phrase "I caught him flat-footed" in a novel he was reading.
"What can that possibly mean?" Seth asked, showing me the phrase. I'd seen it many times, but I didn't have a clue. I knew it meant catching someone in the act of doing something they shouldn't be doing, but why on earth would that relate to flat-footedness?
"Dunno," I said, and I unrolled my beach robe, which I was using as a pillow, and fished my electronic word-finder out of the pocket as Seth watched.
I worked the little buttons until the tiny LCD display screen played out the answer.
"Huh," I said. "It says here that it's a corruption of the original phrase and that it's taken on a different meaning now than it used to have."
"That figures," said Seth, who shares with me an affected disdain for the downhill slide of modern language. Actually, we don't think it's downhill at all, but a living language growing and changing, but that's beside the point.
"What's the original meaning?" he asked, leaning over on his elbow to take a look at the tiny display.
"The original phrase was "I caught him four-footed," I advised Seth, reading from the screen. "Caught, in the romantic sense of 'a catch.' Origin unknown, but possibly related to the ancient fertility rite of laying out the beloved's sandals in a set of four."
"What?" Seth asked, his interest suddenly piqued, and leaning in closer to see for himself. He took the word finder from me and read from the screen: "Due to high mortality rates, agrarian societies which depended on large numbers of men to hunt, harvest crops and tend farms, used the practice to double male fertility.
"In some cultures the practice endures as a symbol of romance, as powerful in its own way as the giving of gifts or flowers. Etymologically, the latter sense of 'I caught him four-footed' relates to winning the hand of the beloved by the gesture of laying the beloved's sandals out in a four-footed pattern."
"Hmm," he said.
"I never would have guessed that in a million years," I admitted, rolling onto my back to soak up the warmth of the sun above and the sand below me, as Seth kept reading the little screen over and over.
So the idea occurred to me a few nights later, after a wild night of Spring Break crowds dancing on the beach full of lively bazuki music and lubricated with the licorice-like flavor of ouzo. Seth and I had lost ourselves in the revelry, finally forgetting school, partying with the midnight crowds.
As we stumbled from the emptying beach to our hostel, Seth was laughing, "Nice that we're helping each other stagger back to our room."
"I'm doing most of the helping and you're doing most of the staggering," I laughed, as we got to the room.
"That's 'cause I'm a stag," he said.
"You'd stagger less as a stag," I said. "With four legs and all."
That made him smile, and I dumped him smiling onto his bed.
And he got it when I removed the beachwalkers from his feet and arranged them and another pair of his beachwakers by the bed in a four-footed pattern.
"Is that your mating call?" he laughed into his pillow.
"It's better than yours, the blonde's mating call," I said, citing the old blonde joke punch line: "'I'm so drunk!'"
I remember we both laughed at that, but not much more afterwards—Seth passed out, and I was asleep almost as soon.
Wouldn't you know, it happened that night, one of Seth's sleepwalking episodes. I don't know what caused me to awaken in the middle of the night, but I noticed his bed was empty and the door was open.
I rushed out into the warm, quiet, starlit night in only my shorts.
Thinking I saw someone at water's edge, I ran to the beach. I got nearer, then I stopped. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me in the pale starlight, but they weren't.
It was him, slowly wandering naked on the warm sand, not too far from the shore. He was beautiful naked, sleepwalking, and I didn't believe what I was seeing—he was almost floating along as he sleepwalked, gently moving along in the starlight on four legs.
I kept thinking I must have something in my eyes, or I must be seeing double from the ouzo.
But as I got closer, my bare feet making no sound in the warm, soft sand, it was clear even in the dim mixture of shadow and starlight, the undulating movement of his four legs, the slight sheen of starlight on his blonde hair and his shoulders also shimmering from his four hips, four hips flexing centaurlike with a short, slightly curved continuation of his lower back between his front and hind hips.
His four legs, shadowlike in the starlight but perfectly discernible as four of his own handsome legs, moved gracefully together as they bore his sleeping form along, the only sound being the ever so slight slap of his four beachwalkers on his four feet.
I quietly started talking to him, and gently took him by the hand, leading him back. But to see him four-legged like this made me want to pause there, alone with him on the warm, starlit beach, and I'm glad I did.
I stopped him, and moved around in front of him and took his other hand, and slowly pulled him towards me, holding his sleeping form against me.
I smoothed my hands along his back and shoulders as I held him to me, and I felt him stir in my arms slightly. I held him reassuringly as he awoke to find himself standing there gently wrapped in my arms.
I felt it when his hands found me and smoothed themselves against my back, and I felt it when the warmth of his penis increased as it grew against me, as mine grew against him.
"Am I dreaming?" he said. "I think I'm a centaur."
"No, you're not dreaming, and I'll prove it," I said quietly, and I kissed him gently on the lips. He was slightly startled by my kiss, but I felt his penis warm and grow more against me, and he put himself into his return kiss, holding me against him.
He started slightly, feeling behind him with his hands as I held him. "You're awake, but your dream has come true," I smiled.
"Oh, my," he sighed, as it dawned on him that he had four legs. "I can feel myself pressing against my legs. I think I have another penis; I can feel it."
He held my hands again, so we walked along together on the warm starlit sand.
He paused a moment and gently worked his four feet to slide them out of his four beachwalkers, and left the beachwalkers there on the sand as we walked away barefoot, me in my shorts on my two bare feet, Seth beautifully naked on his four bare feet, in the warm white starlit sand.
He paused again and kissed me, pressing himself and his big penis hard against me and holding me tight, then releasing his hold on me a little and kissing me again.
"Thank you," he said. "I love being this way for you. His breath was still slightly sweet with ouzo, and he smiled.
"Would you like me to ride you back?" he asked, his hands on my shoulders. "I am your centaur, after all."
"Yes," I smiled, "if we can ride each other when we get back. I know for a fact you're doubly fertile."
That boned both of us pretty good, and he laughed gently, "You definitely caught me four-footed."
We must have made a pretty good sight there in the starlight as I rode him with my arms around him and my head resting on his shoulder, astride his four legs as they trod the soft contours of the starlit sand, as we disappeared into the night.