14 feb. 2007

Mangas de camisa

My grandfather was a white-collar worker who did quite well in business, but he came from a relatively poor farming background. His father, (my great-grand-father Elijah) was a little resentful that his son had done so well, and so (according to my father) he used to use the proverb "From shirtsleeves to shirsleeves in three generations." This was a nineteenth-century saying in the US referring to the fact that one generation might do better than the next, but that there was no guarantee that the third generation would continue to do as well. In other words, social mobility is possible, but temporary at best.

"Shirt-sleeves" in this context means wearing a shirt without a suit-jacket over it. For someone in a good position in society, being in shirt sleeves (mangas de camisa) would be like being only half dressed. It thus means what we would call "blue collar" or "working class." It's an interesting use of metonymy.

This phrase is virtually the only connection I have to my father's grandfather. While I might have some sense of what the phrase meant without this bit of family history, I don't think would understand its force, or the resentment that might be behind someone saying it. It isn't simply a neutral observation, but a sort of insulting warning: "You think you're better than me, but your children will be just as poor as I am." What the story provides is a sort of pragmatic context in which the use, not just the abstract meaning, can be understood.

It's also interesting to put in the context of the proverbial tradition which links children to their parents or the individual to the group. Here the white collar businessman is treated as the exception, the one who wears a suit in contrast to his father, and, presumably, his son too. It's a little more complicated than the simple "acorn doesn't fall far from the tree" sort of adage.

1 comentario:

meika dijo...

"skips a generation" comes to mind to, but its the inverse of the 'shirt-sleeves" quote, from your father's point of view maybe?

Of course I'm a genXer and the whole thign is a sore point with me.