Words evolve. What is ‘you’ today has, over the centuries, been ‘thee’, ‘thou’, ‘thine’ and ‘ye’. Likewise, ‘there’ was ‘yon’, ‘yonder’, ‘thence’. Words also go out of use. ‘Receipt’ no longer means ‘recipe’, nor is ‘quiz’ employed to mean ‘look intently at someone’. People don’t say anymore, ‘He invested unwisely because he was purblind’. Meaning, shortsighted. And ‘rapscallion’ went out with my childhood. I was called that in the days of my very tender youth before everyone decided that the word was too long and substituted it with ‘imp’.
Words may also be co-opted. Not many today, certainly not the economists, would believe that the word ‘inflation’ a long time ago (in the first century BC!) was common usage among glassblowers. It meant, ‘the expansion of a molten blob of glass by introducing air into it’. These days, the mention of ‘inflation’ can have us reaching for our belt buckles — a reflexive, preparatory action to tightening the said belt. As with ‘inflation’, so with ‘mouse’. To quote a humorous ditty, ‘Once was a time when a mouse/Was that cheese-nibbling thing in the house/Now all teachers and tutors/Will swear it’s that thing works computers.’ Nowadays, even the computer mouse is in a rather fast-forward state of evolution — thanks to the advent of laptops that make its presence (the mouse’s) rather redundant.
As an extended consequence, mouse pads are becoming increasingly hard to come by. Literature, of course, is replete with references to ‘mouse’. Agatha Christie’s murder-mystery play The Mousetrap opened in London’s West End in 1952 and has been running continuously ever since! Christie herself, at the time, felt that the play would not last longer than eight months. Unbelievably, it had its 25,000th performance in 2012. Many of those who starred in the original play have passed on (Sir Richard Attenborough among them.) Women in western films have been known to declare, imperiously and exclamatorily, ‘I want a man, not a mouse!’ Which — if someone were to research the notion assiduously — we might find was where ‘machoism’ had its roots. That is, men may have been forced to ‘step up to the plate’. No more mousing around! I say that in jest, of course.
But in all seriousness, speaking about mousing around, it is that very act that led me to writing this column. It was the sight of watching a real live mouse being turned into a plaything by a predatory bird.
Watching a macabre dance
Caught like a sitting duck, out in the open with no tunnels or alleyways down which to disappear, it scurried back and forth, back and forth while its tormentor flapped this way and that, blocking off its moves. It was, honestly, like watching a macabre dance in which only one of the two partners would emerge alive. A bizarre dance to the death. And what was I doing? Nothing at first, to be truthful. I was practically hypnotised by the spectacle. Then, when I realised that the bird was more intent on taunting and in no hurry to go for the kill, I loosened a shoe and flung it with terrible aim, about five metres. It was enough, however, to alarm the bird, which looked up to the skies anticipating an even bigger predator, such as an eagle.
And in this little interim, the adrenalin-infused mouse made its escape. But where to? In through the back door of my house and after that, to who knows where! I’m still trying to locate it a week later, but at nights I hear its scampering and I hope it’s not developing an appetite for the printed word. My unpublished manuscripts will then no longer be available for posterity. The hunt goes on. Hither, thither, hither and yon, as they used to say in the days back then.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.