"The cat of my aunt is in the garden." That's the silly sentence that supposedly must be studied by students learning French.
I don't know whether anyone ever had to translate or analyze that statement, but it's frequently given as an example of the useless stuff one learns before getting to truly important material like "Where can I find a McDonald's?" or "Please put more ice in my drink."Recently I learned that some foreign students of English actually study an equally silly cat-in-the-garden story, one that qualifies as an urban legend.
This story, usually called "The Bungled Rescue of the Cat," occurs in a British instructional series called "Headway." It's found in Unit 3, a lesson about verbs of the "past simple and past continuous" tenses.
An Italian student sent me a photocopy of the lesson and commented, "English students' books are a strong way for the diffusion of urban legends all over the world!"
Having seen other examples of legends being used as English teaching materials, I'm inclined to agree with him.
The "Headway" approach is to illustrate the tale as a wordless comic strip, then summarize it in sentences but leave out the verbs. Students are required to fill the blanks with the proper verb forms.
The resulting story, if completed correctly, reads like this:
"In January 1978 the firemen were on strike, and the army took over the job of answering emergency calls.
"On 14 January 1978 Mrs. Brewin was working in her garden. Her cat, Henry, was playing around her. It climbed a tree in the garden and couldn't get down, so she called the fire brigade. While she was waiting for them to arrive, she offered him some fish to try to get him down.
"The army finally arrived, put up their ladder and rescued the cat. Mrs. Brewin was delighted and invited them in for some tea. But as they were leaving 10 minutes later, they ran over the cat and killed it."
British fire fighters were on strike in 1978, and the bungled cat rescue may really have happened. But different versions of the story are told about both regular firemen and substitutes, and in the United States as well as England.
I'm suspicious about some details of the story. What kind of garden work would someone be doing during mid-January in England? Do fire fighters respond to treed-cat calls, and don't most cats eventually come down on their own, especially if tempted with food?
I also doubt that most cats are slow-moving and dimwitted enough to be killed by a large truck just starting up. This death sounds like a detail borrowed from the well-known urban legend called "Multiple Accidental Deaths" in which a distraught mother who is taking her injured child to the hospital runs over her baby, who has crawled into the driveway.
At any rate, the English avidly tell "The Bungled Rescue" story, usually attributing it to their own city or neighborhood. So I guess it's appropriate for a language course.
Here's another English cat disaster story I found recently, "The Battered Cat." It appeared in at least two English newspapers, but seems to contain the irony and horror of a true urban legend.
A cat dashes into the road, and a motorist cannot avoid running over it. He stops and runs back to examine the poor animal and finds it lying on the grass by the roadside.
Thinking the cat is unconscious and dying after the accident, the driver gets a jack out of the trunk of his car and gives the cat a strong blow to its head to put it out of its misery.
An old woman runs screaming from a nearby house, saying that this mad driver has killed her cat, which often snoozes there by the side of the road.
The driver tries to calm her, but she arouses several neighbors with her screams and insists that the police be called. When the police investigate, they find the body of the cat that had been hit still wedged under the car, and the man realizes that he has indeed beaten the old lady's pet to death.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.
1991, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.