Misinterpretation at the Juncture of Adamancy and Satisfaction

This is an old folk tale that I discovered recounted by Joseph Robertson in his collection of humorous stories, Deliciae Literariae, published in 1840:


King James VI, on removing to London, was waited upon by the Spanish Ambassador, a man of high erudition and learning, but who had a crotchet in his head that every country should have an appointed Professor of Signs, in order to teach him and the like of him to understand one another, regardless of spoken language. The ambassador was lamenting one day, before the king, the great desideratum throughout all Europe, at which point the king—who was a queerish sort of man and who did not wish to be thought uncouth—exaggerated to him, ‘Why, I have a professor of signs in the northernmost college in my dominions, viz, at Aberdeen; it’s such a pity that it’s such a great way off, perhaps even 600 miles!’


‘Were it 10,000 leagues off, I shall make it a point to see this great learned man!’ says the ambassador. ‘I am determined that I shall set out to see him in two or three days!’


The King saw that the ambassador was quite committed to the project, so he writ—or caused to be writ—a letter to the University of Aberdeen stating the case of the ‘misunderstanding,’ and desiring that the [real] professors should put off the ambassador in some way, or to make the best of the situation.


The ambassador thus arrived at the university, and was received with great solemnity; but he very soon began to inquire which one of them had the great honour of being the Professor of Signs. The deans and professors told him that the professor was absent in the Highlands and would return nobody could say when. The ambassador, not to be deterred, then said, ‘I will wait his return, though it were twelve months!’



The College of Professors contemplates their options...


Seeing that their fib would not do, and that they had to entertain the ambassador at great expense while he waited, they contrived a stratagem. There was one—Geordy—a butcher, blind in one eye, a droll fellow, with much wit and roguery about him. He was retrieved, as this story goes, and ‘instructed’ to be a professor of signs, but told that he should not speak upon pain of death. Geordy agreed to the task.


The ambassador was thus now told that the professor of signs would be at home the next day, at which news he rejoiced greatly. Geordy was gowned, wigged, and placed in a chair of state in a room of the college, with all the professors and the ambassador in an adjoining room. The ambassador was shown into the hall where Geordy sat, and left to converse with him as best as he could, the whole of the faculty waiting upon the issue with fear and trembling.


The ambassador held up one of his fingers to Geordy; Geordy then held up two of his own. The ambassador held up three digits; Geordy then clenched his fist and looked stern. At that point the ambassador took an orange from his pocket and held it up; in response, Geordy took a piece of barley-cake from his own pocket and held that up. After which the ambassador bowed low to him, and retired to the other professors.


The professors anxiously inquired of his opinion of their ‘brother.’


‘He is a perfect miracle, said the ambassador. ‘His learnedness and insight is worth all the wealth of the Indies!’


‘Well,’ curiously said the professors, ‘Please proffer us some details!’


‘Why,’ said the ambassador, ‘I first held up one finger, denoting that there is but one God; he held up two signifying that there are the Father and the Son. So I held up three, meaning the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; at which he clenched his fist to say that these three are one. I then took out an orange, signifying the goodness of God, who gives his creatures not only the necessities, but the luxuries of life; upon which the wonderful man presented a piece of bread, showing that it was the staff of life, and preferable to every luxury.’


The professors were highly relieved that everything had turned out so well; so having quit themselves of the ambassador, they next went into the hall to hear Geordy’s version of the story.



Geordy tells his side of the story...


‘Well, Geordy, how have you come on, and what did you think of yon ambassador?’


‘The rascal!’ exclaimed Geordy, ‘What did he do first, think ye? He held up one finger, as much as to say “You have only one eye!” Then I held up two, meaning that my one eye was perhaps as good as both his. Then the fellow held up three of his fingers, to say that there were but three eyes between us; and then I was so mad at the scoundrel that I got my fist ready to give him a whack on the side of his head. Then the rascal did not stop with his provocation there, but forsooth, takes out an orange, as much as to say, “Your poor, beggarly, cold, dank country cannot produce such as this!” So I showed him me barley cake, meaning that I did not care a farthing for him nor his jaundiced fruit, as long as I had this! But only by the grace o’ an angel’s staying hand,’ concluded Geordy, ‘I’m sorry yet that I didna thrash the hide of that scoundrel!’





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