As she walked down the sidewalk toward the Emerald Victorian, Laetitia was happy that she wasn’t leading a tour today. She would enjoy a cup of coffee in the library, write a limerick, and then be on her way. She had been to the theater the night before and had stopped at a pub with some friends afterward. The play, The 39 Steps, was a delight, and they were all in the mood to talk about it afterward. Patrick Barlow wrote the adaptation, a farce based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film and the 1915 novel by John Buchan.
Laetitia especially enjoyed an early scene where Richard Hannay, the protagonist brings Annabella Schmidt to his apartment. Annabella tells Richard she is a spy and has uncovered a plot to steal British military secrets. Her country of origin is uncertain, but she has a German surname and speaks with a German accent. She says “schtup” when she means “stop.” Thus, when she said to Richard Hannay the following lines in her German accent, about a third of the audience erupted in laughter: “These men will stop at nothing. I’m the only person who can stop them. If they are not stopped, it’s only a matter of days, perhaps hours…”
The laughers were those that had some knowledge of German, since schtup is a word that means “have sexual intercourse with.” Quite a few others in the audience laughed too because they sensed something must be funny, but they didn’t understand what.
Laetitia was one of the laughers, and as the coffee brewed in the kitchen she thought about her great grandfather, a first-generation German American. She remembered being on his farm as a child when several neighbors were over to help with silo filling. During breaks from work, the men sat under a shade tree and spoke in German. She heard them say “schtup” several times, and each time it was followed by laughter. Because of its association with laughter, she remembered the word and looked it up many years later when she was an adult. It wasn’t the only off-color German word her great grandfather used. Another stimulated the limerick of the day.
Great grandfather’s favorite vice
Was to use the non-English word scheiss
So that kids without German
Just might not determine
That the word that he said wasn’t nice.