the umbrella of aunt
June 22, 2022 5:28 PM   Subscribe

Can I consult original sources of this sentence? I get it in a literal sense. I guess that it means banal and very ordinary. From where did Maugham quote it ? :Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardners aunt is in the house.Thank you for helping my English.
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
This makes sense within the overall context of the sentence (which I got from a quick Google):
“We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.”
He is saying that the person does not have enough strength in that language to express what really they want to say. Instead, they only know how to say banal sentences in that language, such as the ones that you learn in a beginning conversational textbook.
posted by matildaben at 5:44 PM on June 22 [4 favorites]


Based on my reading of it here, it sounds like Maugham is explaining how difficult it is to communicate anything of real value to others who do not think the same way.

Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.

The painter referred to earlier found that the best way to express something complex is through painting, not words, which sets the narrator thinking: If they were not able to paint, they would not be able to express the ideas seething in their brain.

It would be like someone who has such ideas and, lacking the language to express them, can only say things like "the gardener left their umbrella in the house" and other such basic things. Even mastery of a medium or language does not guarantee you can communicate ideas.

Does that make sense?

I would say this is quite advanced English, many native speakers would have trouble understanding it without the context of the story! If you are working on this as an English learner that is amazing!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 5:46 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]


Yes, it is an example of the kind of thing one learns how to say in a not very good language course or a beginning textbook. The exact sentence may be original to Maugham, but I have encountered many different variations on the same idea elsewhere, with characters lamenting that they want to say something meaningful but only know how to say "This is the pencil of my grandmother's sister" or something else of the sort.
posted by redfoxtail at 5:48 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


I don't think Maugham was quoting any specific source. He's saying that we're like people who don't know the language they're speaking very well. "The umbrella of the gardener's aunt is in the house" sounds like the kind of sentence that might be in a beginning language textbook or lesson. There is no reason to think he ever saw that exact sentence in a book. He probably just made up a sentence based on examples he had seen in various books or lessons.
posted by Redstart at 5:49 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]


For instance, here is an example from E. Nesbit's children's book The Phoenix and the Carpet:

‘He thinks,’ whispered the Phoenix, ‘that her troubles have turned her brain. What a pity you know no French!’

‘I do know a lot of French,’ whispered Robert, indignantly; ‘but it’s all about the pencil of the gardener’s son and the penknife of the baker’s niece—nothing that anyone ever wants to say.’
posted by redfoxtail at 5:55 PM on June 22 [11 favorites]


Best answer: This may be Maugham's variation of a phrase that is a rather famous example of speech that is irrelevant and useless, "La plume de ma tante," which even has its own Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia dates it to the 19th century, so this certainly falls within Maugham's time period. Wikipedia also quotes Life Magazine as saying, "As every student knows, the most idiotically useless phrase in a beginner's French textbook is la plume de ma tante (the quill of my aunt)."

There is even a song.
posted by FencingGal at 6:26 PM on June 22 [8 favorites]


Everyone has already explained it well, as an example of the sort of sentence one might write in a language learning class as an English speaker of that era.

This is not a direct literary link, but that struggle for human connection reminds me of David Sedaris' writing about living in France while learning French. There's one essay available online here: https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a1419/talk-pretty-0399/. Another excerpt is here: https://genius.com/David-sedaris-jesus-shaves-annotated, and I think that essay does an even better job of showing what Maugham is describing, which is the challenge of wanting to express something complex without having the ability to do so. (In another essay he describes buying two kilograms of meat at the market because he didn't know how to say the noun in the singular form. I identified deeply with that essay, as someone who once bought a kilogram of grapes in Italy because I didn't know how to ask for anything smaller.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:20 PM on June 22


Gosh I feel like this is a really old joke, and now I'm also trying desperately to think where it would have come from! The version I think of is "the pen of my uncle is larger than the garden of my aunt", or similar. I feel like it's in an Asterix book somewhere maybe...? [Aha! I was right]

Of course, Eddie Izzard hilariously included this concept in one of his stand up shows. But I just looked it up and, contrary to my memory, the sentence is not about aunts and pens/umbrellas after all.
posted by EllaEm at 11:23 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Yes, he's commenting on how poorly languages were taught in English schools, and how mundane the vocabulary taught was (everyday objects, possessives, servants, family, simple verbs, positions, places). These days an equivalent sentence would be about numbers, fruit and farm animals, the first few lessons of most Duolingo courses.
posted by Hogshead at 4:11 PM on June 23


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