Keep mum. How many times have I heard the phrase, growing up. It’s something people don’t say a lot these days. Over time, it gradually evolved into ‘keep quiet’ and then in one short terse leap, it became an order: ‘Shut up!’
My father used to give us all extra squares of chocolate after my mother had apportioned fair shares for the four of us children. He’d simply say, ‘Here. One extra piece. And keep mum.’ And off the four of us would dart into safe corners of the house to nibble away at our ‘dessert’ while mum went back into the kitchen to get the dinner started.
For her, sometimes, each day was a journey from one meal to another, with the kitchen serving as ‘central station’.
My father, after the mischief of rewarding us with extra chocolate behind his wife’s back, would pack his bags and head off to work, driving a locomotive to some distant place, which sometimes kept him away from home for two days or more; enough time for mum to discover his ‘crime’ and also absolve him of any blame by the time he returned.
Looking back, I think this was their household version of the parental game ‘good cop, bad cop’.
Only recently, I discovered two things quite by accident: The first being that in medieval times the word ‘mum’ referred to ‘silence’. This in turn was linked to the word ‘mummer’, a pantomime performer whose performances were conducted in total silence, with the lips unmoving, so the only sound, if any sound was made, was ‘mmm’, hence ‘mum’.
A second discovery was that ‘keeping mum’ could have nothing to do with silence whatsoever. It could just be literal, plain as the nose on one’s face. That is, keeping mum could simply mean keeping mother. Or, looking after mum, letting her stay with you. Perhaps on a short visit. Perhaps in her old age. Which, one would think, ought to be a lot easier than the cliched ‘keeping mum-in-law’.
To go off at a tangent, and I apologise, but stay with me because this thought is linked: Those of us who’ve read literature or theology and hear the word Dante, are reminded of the thirteenth century Italian writer Dante Alighieri whose Divine Comedy was a notable work of its time and continues to be read today by scholars because it deals with several theological symbols that help trace a man’s journey through life: Sin, suffering, repentance and rehabilitation. It was Dante, in fact, who jumped straight into my mind when I heard the word ‘hell’ being used not once but several times the other day.
Now, ‘hell’ itself has become such an oft-used term that one has long ceased to react. A person may say to their family on returning from work, “I’ve had a hell of a day.” And everybody will lend a sympathetic ear and then get on with other business. Usually. But, when the word is hurled into public space with anger and venom, anyone listening, as I happened to be, will lend more than a sympathetic ear. In fact the ears, like an alert dog’s, will be pricked up because there’s always a chance that this barely restrained anger could turn volatile. I learn very quickly that the young irate man who is uttering the word ‘hell’ so frequently it may be his mantra, is in conversation with his sister. Like me, they are sipping coffee, but if I have to guess, the beverage is not being enjoyed. They are in the midst of a disagreement. The young woman, who looks a lot like her brother, is pleading with him, saying: ‘Please, Josh (not his name), please. I need a break.” And he’s reiterating: “No way. She’s cruel, she hated me. All my time in hell was spent with her. I can never have her in my house.” Only a few minutes later I realise they are arguing over the business of ‘keeping mum’.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.