News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Thoreau's Hoe - A Commentary

By Tom Dodge, KERA 90.1 commentator.

Dallas, TX – "Okay, what's so funny?" I said. Were my students actually laughing at one of my jokes? They were laughing all right, but I wasn't in on the joke. This is a strange feeling for me. I'm the one always trying to loosen them up because they are way too serious about literary authors, in this case the American writer, Henry David Thoreau. They've been programmed to view authors as sacrosanct. After all, they wrote CLASSICS. The particular classic in point was his book, "Walden."

It's important at this juncture to point out that Henry Thoreau was a man whose looks and cranky temperament did not endear him to women-folk. He said he had a girlfriend once, though I said that I was skeptical about this. I could see this somehow interested them momentarily.

But I lost them when I returned to a lengthy description of his book, which is mostly a philosophical account of his two-years of solitude in a small cabin in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts.

So, here they were, looking at one another and snickering as if my jockey shorts were on the outside of my pants. The more I talked, the more they snickered.

What gives? As I said, I work pretty hard to get these kids to laugh. Usually they just sit there, as still as an oil painting. Now they were laughing and I didn't know at what. All I was saying was how thrifty Henry was, the supreme tightwad of all time. He even kept a list of all his expenditures. His one-room cabin, which he built himself, cost twenty-eight dollars, twelve-and-a-half cents.

So, to back up, things had been going along normally until I ventured into the costs he listed for the raising of his bean crop. Seeds, I said, set him back him three dollars, twelve and a half cents. Plowing, harrowing and furrowing: seven dollars and fifty cents.

But this is when it all changed.

"His hoe cost," I said, "fifty-four cents."

First it was just snickering. Then giggling. But I was so engrossed in my mission that I soldiered on.

"You may think," I ventured, "that this is a low price for a hoe, but that's the equivalent of about five dollars today. And I'm sure it was better than the ones you get now. I got one not too long ago for five dollars and that was the sorriest hoe I ever had. The old ones are better and last longer." They were dying.

"You probably don't even know how to use a hoe," I went on. "Well, you ought to learn..."

This is when I got it. You never feel more like a relic than you do when you encounter one of these linguistic chasms breaching a couple of generations. Somewhere deep in my memory bank, there was a file on this slang expression used to characterize a woman who is employed in the oldest profession. But if I ever thought about it at all, I viewed it simply as a dialectic elision of the final syllable of a five-letter word and limited to a small group of Southern speakers.

Turns out that I was the only one who didn't know that this truncated word has become a standard expression in the speech habits of every American from coast-to-coast under the age of fifty. I asked the preacher and he said, "Where do you live? Under a rock?"

A.J. Dodge, age 4, said, "Papa, you said a bad word."

Okay, from now on, when discussing Thoreau's bean field, I hereby designate the tool he uses for weeding as a garden implement with a thin flat blade on a long wooden handle.

It's pretty awful that it has come to this. Now, how does this development affect my discussion of the hoarfrost that he said made cosmic markings on his windowpane?


Tom Dodge is a gardener and therefore familiar with the proper use of the implement with a sharp flat blade at the end of a long wooden handle.