July 04, 2002
Special Fourth Of July Riddle

This was originally supposed to be a Memorial Day post, but I was bogged down grading papers back then and never finished it. It's just as pertinent on the Fourth of July.

Back on Memorial Day, Diana Moon of Letter from Gotham linked to a well-known story from the Battle of the Bulge. On Christmas Day in 1944, General McAuliffe, surrounded with his 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, Belgium, was asked to surrender. His reply: "Nuts".

A nice story, but perhaps not entirely true. I went to college (1971) with a man who had just gotten back from Vietnam, where he had served as a paratrooper in the 101st, and was spending his GI Bill money on tuition, cigarettes, and rum. He told me that he had learned from the oral tradition of his unit that General McAuliffe did not actually say "nuts", but something rather different. What precisely? That is a question of what we pedants call textual criticism.

Pedantic Excursus: Classicists who specialize in textual criticism spend their time examining the variant readings in different manuscripts of an author and trying to decide which one the author wrote. The answer is often 'none of them', in which case they either put daggers around the unintelligible †wrd ro praze† or 'emend' the text, proposing some reading that is not in any manuscript. The reading proposed must obviously be good Latin, must fit the author's style and the meter and meaning of the passage as a whole, and should if possible provide a plausible explanation for the error proposed. Here is an example from Petronius' Satyricon. A dinner guest is talking about an ex-slave who became rich and the manuscript has him saying abbas secrevit, "the abbot hid [something] away". Petronius, murdered by Nero in 66 A.D., was no Christian, and there are no abbots in the Satyricon. The manuscript reading is impossible. A scholar suggested that what he actually wrote was ab asse crevit, "he grew from a penny", and this is now generally accepted, since it makes perfect sense in the context, and would have been very easily misunderstood by a semiliterate Christian copyist hundreds of years later, when abbots were prevalent. All the more so, since ancient manuscripts tended to run all their words together like this: ABASSECREVIT. Editing an ancient author for publication is very much like editing a modern manuscript, except that there are usually multiple manuscripts that must be reconciled, the author is not available for consultation, and the editor is not a native speaker and cannot consult any, since they are all dead. The oldest Latin manuscripts that survive are anywhere from 400 (Vergil) to 1200 (Propertius) years later than the author's publication, so there is usually a great deal of accumulated error ('corruption') to correct.

To return to my subject, and my riddle, what word or phrase did General McAuliffe actually utter? Please put your emendations and explanations (if appropriate) in the comments. Hint: The first step is to think of a motive for changing the words. The rest is relatively easy.

Sorry, no prize except fame and honor. And I don't pretend to know whether my classmate was right or not, so please no angry e-mails abusing me for impugning the honor of General McAuliffe or the press of his day. I like the emended text better than the transmitted one anyway.

Update: (8:45 PM)

We have a winner in the first comment, so don't peek until you've come up with your own solution. Thanks, Susanna.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at July 04, 2002 06:47 PM

Well, it would seem the reason for changing would be to clean it up for a public rather more sensitive about colorful language than today, so I would say that "Balls" would be the first choice for what he really said. That doesn't quite make sense as a one-word response, though. If it was "they're a bunch of nuts", contracted, as it were, I'd go with "f*ckers", as in "they are..." Otherwise, I don't see a logical term that "nuts" would be a replacement for; it could just be a randomly-generated term plugged in for image's sake.

I'm curious to see what others think. And, of course, he was right.

Posted by: susanna on July 4, 2002 08:05 PM

That didn't take long. "Balls" it is -- if my informant is correct, of course. "Nuts" is certainly an obvious correction: clean enough to print in a newspaper, but with a little hint of the testicular meaning that is unavoidable in "balls".

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on July 4, 2002 08:43 PM

Brits still say "bollocks" in similar situations. I'd guess that either in his day "balls" was used in the same way, or perhaps he actually said "bollocks."

Posted by: Martin on July 4, 2002 09:28 PM

Sounds very reminiscent of another famous incident from military history. At the Battle of Waterloo, when it was clear that Napoleon was near to total defeat, the last remnants of the Old Guard, led by General Cambronne, were asked to surrender by the British. According to the official version, Cambronne patriotically shouted back, “La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!” (“The Guard dies, it doesn’t surrender!”). According to the less official version what he actually yelled was, “Merde!” I wonder if Gen. McAuliffe knew about this anecdote and provided his own updated, American version when faced with a similar situation.

Posted by: Murti Bing on July 5, 2002 06:05 AM

Speaking of "balls," my dad, a history teacher, taught me this rhyme that he swore up and down was a ribald Elizabethan favorite. (That and the Civil War era were his favorite historical times.) It goes like this:

"Balls!" cried the Queen,
"If I had 'em, I'd be king."
The King laughed 'cos he had to,
The Queen laughed 'cos she wanted to."

(Or: "two." Get it???)

I am afraid to look this up to see if it is truly of Elizabethan origin or confirm my theory that my father or one of his cronies made it up.

Posted by: Andrea Harris on July 5, 2002 03:42 PM

Charles B. MacDonald's A Time for Trumpets (iirc) has an excellent recounting of the incident.

Apparently, the German officers did not understand the term "Nuts", and the American officer (or was it an NCO?) was kind enough to explain it to them in more, uhm, colorful terms.

Posted by: Dean on July 5, 2002 05:45 PM

Yes, that's how I first heard it. The German officer was using English he'd learned in school, which naturally did not include slang or obscenities. He therefore did not understand that "nuts" is (a) a colloquialism implying vehement refusal, with (b) some hint of testicles, though not a strong enough hint to make it unprintable in American newspapers. He was left wondering what walnuts, almonds, and pecans had to do with a demand for surrender.

If my classmate is right, McAuliffe actually said "balls", which would have had much the same confusing effect on the German officer. Here the primary (though metaphorical) meaning is testicular, with an additional metaphorical slang meaning "nonsense, hogwash", again implying stern refusal, as with British "bollocks". Again, a German officer working with school-English would have been thinking "soccer balls? tennis balls? golfballs? what do balls have to do with surrender?"

In sum, I don't think the German's confused reaction would tell us one way or another, since both terms would have been confusing. The only difference is that "balls" would have had to be changed for the press, and "nuts" is the obvious -- and very appropriate -- euphemism. It's hardly even a lie, since the meanings are so close: the switch just makes the testicles an avoidable undertone.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on July 6, 2002 12:10 AM

Well, at least one person who was there disagrees, insisting to the present day that there was no obscenity covered up. I can also see why soldiers today would be anxious to have the comment more in keeping with modern slang; because profanity is more accepted today, a rebuke like "Nuts" seems too mild. But in this account, it makes perfect sense -- not a considered response intended to discomfit the Germans, but the straightforward reaction of someone under immense pressure who nevertheless coolly retained his morale.

Posted by: Dan Hartung on July 6, 2002 02:01 AM

I've heard the expression "nuts to that!" but never "balls to that!" I'm going to agree with Dan above that MacAuliffe said "Nuts!"

Posted by: Robert Bauer on July 6, 2002 02:49 PM

In the movie The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, the interjection ``Merde!'' was dubbed into [American] English as ``Balls!''.  I thought the translation a bit odd, but if it's good enough for a General . . . .

Posted by: Anton Sherwood on July 10, 2002 02:35 PM

The 'Nuts' variant of this is quoted in Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers. I wonder if McAuliffe was thinking of posterity - if so he would have wanted something pithy and printable. I don't see why 'Nuts' is that implausible.

As for the phrase 'balls to that,' I use it all the time. But then I'm English. I have been known to say things like 'sod that for a game of soldiers,' 'bugger that for a lark,' and other such phrases that are generally incomprehensible to my Gringo chums.

Posted by: David Gillies on July 11, 2002 06:09 PM