During the Christmas holidays we watched The Sound of Music on television. Some parts of it will forever be charming, while other parts have not worn so well. No matter – it’s still a feast of nostalgia for those of us who remember the film when it first came out.
Bob says he has always been irritated by a line in the song ‘Something Good’, which Maria sings to Captain von Trapp after he confesses he loves her. The line is, ‘So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good’. Bob maintains that the words ‘or childhood’ were only put in to bump up the numbers of syllables in the line to the reqired number for the scansion. Youth, childhood – aren’t they interchangeable terms? We agree it might have been less annoying to say ‘somewhere in my early childhood’ or similar.
As it happens, however, I have just been reading Tolstoy’s memoir, in an English translation. In English, the title is Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. At first glance this is an even worse tautology than ‘somewhere in my youth or childhood’. Isn’t childhood the same as boyhood, and boyhood the same as youth, and youth the same as childhood?
Well, evidently not in Russian, because the memoir divides into three parts. ‘Childhood’ is the earliest. In ‘Boyhood’ the author is a bit older. In ‘Youth’ he is older still. How long does ‘youth’ go on for? Is a teenager still a youth? Is a university student still a youth? These distinctions are not clear in English. A ‘youth’ could be a child of eight. A ‘boy’ could be a man of any age, being affectionately referred to by a friend, eg. ‘He’s still a handsome boy’.
If I could read Russian, I’d know how these stages of a young person’s life are demarcated in the Russian language. But for now, we have decided to reprieve Oscar Hammerstein II (the lyricist of ‘Something Good’) on the grounds that Tolstoy, had he been commissioned by Hollywood, might also have written the line, ‘Somewhere in my youth or childhood’.