For a great many Canadian English speakers, there is no phonemic contrast between any two of the vowels [ɑ], [ɒ], and [ɔ]. So, for example, where British English and Irish English distinguish the words body [bɒdɪ] and bawdy [bɔdɪ] in pronunciation, they are homophonous for most Canadians, both being pronounced [bɑɾi]. And I wonder whether this fact isn't at least partly responsible for Peter Howell's spectacular misconstrual of Yeats in a film review in this morning's Toronto Star.
Howell is reviewing Million Dollar Baby, a new film directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Eastwood, Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman. He writes:
We must not blink or snicker at the sight of Clint Eastwood, playing a boxing coach in his stirring new movie Million Dollar Baby, repeatedly dipping into a book of Yeats poetry for inspiration.
Eastwood teases us further by never revealing what lines from Yeats he's reading, leaving us to speculate. How about these ones: "What shall I do for pretty girls/ Now my old bawd is dead?"
Eastwood is 74, and his Million Dollar Baby costar Hilary Swank is 30, and it would be reasonable to assume — especially if you've seen the trailer — that there's some kind of romance afoot [...]. What, indeed, could Clint's "old bawd" do for Hilary, even if he has kept himself in remarkably good shape?
A bloody and a sudden end,
Gunshot or a noose,
For Death who takes what man would keep,
Leaves what man would lose.
He might have had my sister,
My cousins by the score,
But nothing satisfied the fool
But my dear Mary Moore,
None other knows what pleasures man
At table or in bed.
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?
Now, it seems to me that even if Howell hadn't bothered to go and get a dictionary and look up the word bawd and find that it means, as the OED puts it, "a procuress, or a woman keeping a place of prostitution," he could still have figured out simply by reading the bloody poem that "my old bawd" refers to the late Mrs. Moore, and not to the speaker's own bod. And perhaps he might even have twigged to the fact that the rhetorical question "What shall I do for pretty girls?" is about procuring pretty girls, not about performing services for them. (As another famous Irishman might have put it, "Ask not what you can do for pretty girls; ask what pretty girls can do for you.") Homophony may partly explain Howell's confusion, but a great deal of inattention must also have gone into it.