Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)
So, funny thing. I came across this quote when I was looking up the word “fortnight.” Somehow, until that moment, I hadn’t realized what “fortnight” meant in one of those weird flukes of vocabulary where you don’t pick up on the meaning of a somewhat common word that you’ve seen many, many times, yet you kind of think you know what it means, but, turns out, you were way off. I always kinda thought it meant something like… I don’t know. An afternoon? Kind of like the time right before night? Don’t ask me where I got that, because it makes no sense at all.
Turns out, it means two weeks, which is quite a bit different than five hours or whatever. This helps explain my confusion about the passage that made me look this up in the first place. I was reading a book online about Florence Nightingale (she’s intriguing, all right? So sue me) and in a quote from her diary, in which she was busy chronicling just how much being a 30-year-old socialite of the 19th century sucks (and it actually does sounds horrible, btw) she said the following, which I may or may not be paraphrasing liberally having read it about a month ago:
Being a 30-year-old woman who gets treated like an infant by my parents who honestly believe that my role in life is to read books, play songs on the piano, go visiting with my mom every once in a while, and chit chat at breakfast to entertain the men of the house makes me really, really annoyed when all I want to do with my life is revolutionize nursing and make huge advances in sanitation. EML!!!! (That means End My Life. I’m Florence Nightingale, and I don’t say swears.)
Anyway, to demonstrate this, here’s an accounting of what I was forced to do during the last fortnight. I read two volumes of Sybil to mother, and then read the entire Aeneid to father along with Several Texts About How Women Should be Treated Like Infants and Should Really Like It. I also memorized 24 songs by heart, paid 14 visits with mother, attended several luncheons, and wrote 46 pieces of correspondence. Is this really all life holds for me???
For obvious reasons, a quick check on what fortnight actually meant was in order, because otherwise, according to my previous definition of “pretty much an afternoon, or something like that” Nightingale was not only an amazing altruist who helped save many lives, but she also had casually discovered how to freeze time at her leisure.
That is what led me to the aforequoted quote (I sure like making words up) which appeared below the online definition I found. I love this quote because it is absolutely true. True for everyone, of course, but especially true for those of us who accidentally, out of nowhere, find ourselves spending hours reading detailed journal entries by Florence Nightingale when they should actually be doing really important things like working or writing or being a dad.
You can bet if I was going to be hanged in a fortnight, I would officially not be reading about Florence Nightingale. Instead, I would get crap done. I would also be eating really amazing food (say, Leatherby’s or Cafe Rio or Claim-jumpers or maybe even Taco Bell, or maybe all of them at the same time), hanging out with Wifey and the kids, and taking some deep breaths. And I’d probably be crying or something. And praying. And perhaps there would be some Scrabble involved.
(Really? Really, this is what came to my brain as I pondered the final fortnight of my life? No joke, I was like “what else would I like to get in if there were only 14 days left? I know, SCRABBLE!!”)
This post has ended on a very sad note.