I should’ve expected trouble from the moment that the stewardess on the Lima-to-Houston flight recognized me. ¿No venimos de hacer este viaje anoche? “Didn’t we just do this trip last night?” I smiled a “yes” at her. She switched to English: Couldn’t wait to see me again, huh? I’m sure I blushed.
The English word before belongs to a couple of parts of speech. Rarely, it can be a preposition indicating location:
- Sufficiently stoned but not unreasonably so, we stand before the bathroom mirror, marvelling at the crisp clean surfaces of ourselves and one another.
- How can you stand before her and offer her the nothing, the nothing, that you are?
- When the last trump sounds and I stand before the Lord our God and am judged I will be found wanting and know not what to do.
More commonly, before is adverbial, indicating a point in a temporal (time) sequence:
- It should be hard enough to secure the tesserae, but it must not harden before the local pattern has been completed.
- Admittedly, there is a larger number of fourth century pavements (differential preservation may be an important factor here): before the 1960’s, but for those from Wheeler’s excavation at Verulamium, few pre-fourth century pavements were datable at all.
- That means that the court has to consider the position immediately before an emergency protection order, if there was one, or an interim care order, if that was the initiation of protection, or, as in this case, when the child went into voluntary care.
In constructions with the perfect tenses, it has a special meaning. The perfect tenses in English are the ones with have used in what’s called a modal sense, followed by a past participle:
- I have never been able to understand why anyone would want to wake up at the dead of night (5 a.m.) to go and paddle a canoe, but I am assured that the challenge is worth it.
- I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard it sung in Latin, I certainly haven’t.
- She has written various articles on medieval theatre.
- I saw everything had been tidied up.
- He was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace when Whittaker Chambers, a renegade and self-confessed Communist ‘spy’ then on the staff of Time magazine, accused him of having passed him documents from the State Department during the late 1930s.
When you combine before with a perfect tense, it has a very specific interpretation: it refers to something that has happened at an earlier point in time, and is happening again now, or is about to happen, or will certainly happen at some point in the future:
- But, as I‘ve said before , you do have such interesting friends.
Here the speaker is both asserting right now that you have such interesting friends, and asserting that they have said that on some previous occasion.
- You‘ve heard before that Leeds works within the rules of the framework set down by regional planning guidance…
The speaker is asserting right now that Leeds works within some framework or other, and also asserting that such has been asserted on some previous occasion.
- I’ve never been to Venice before, I can prove it, nor have I met your father.
The speaker is in Venice now, but is asserting that they have not been to Venice on a previous occasion.
What you should take away from these examples: in English, the perfect tense plus before refers to something that is happening now, or is about to happen. So, when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer said to me yesterday morning at 7 AM after a long night spent in an unusually uncomfortable aircraft: Have you ever been arrested before? …I thought: This morning is not going to go quite as I had planned.
A friend who was scheduled to give a keynote speech at a conference on Big Data in Cuzco, Peru had taken ill, and I was asked to fill in for her at the last minute. I had a commitment right before the conference and a commitment right after it, so giving the talk required that I land in Cuzco at 5 AM, give my talk at 2 PM, and then get on a flight back to the U.S. at 7 PM–a passage éclair, “lighting visit,” as we say in French.
The most salient fact about Peru is this: it’s wonderful. A beautiful place that has a lovely Southern Hemisphere ambience without the constant in-your-face grinding poverty of, say, Guatemala. The people that I met were delightful, and the grilled meats that I had for all three of my meals in-country were probably the best I’ve ever had in my life (and I say that as someone who knows a few good restaurants in Paris). It’s also one of the world’s biggest producers of cocaine.
Cocaine entered the European context when an Italian doctor ran across it in South America. As Wikipedia tells it:
In 1859, an Italian doctor, Paolo Mantegazza, returned from Peru, where he had witnessed first-hand the use of coca by the local indigenous peoples. He proceeded to experiment on himself and upon his return to Milan he wrote a paper in which he described the effects. In this paper he declared coca and cocaine (at the time they were assumed to be the same) as being useful medicinally, in the treatment of “a furred tongue in the morning, flatulence, and whitening of the teeth.”
As he put it in his work Sulle Virtù Igieniche e Medicinali della Coca e sugli Alimenti Nervosi in Generale (“On the hygienic and medicinal properties of coca and on nervous nourishment in general”, translation and quote from Wikipedia):
“… I sneered at the poor mortals condemned to live in this valley of tears while I, carried on the wings of two leaves of coca, went flying through the spaces of 77,438 words, each more splendid than the one before…An hour later, I was sufficiently calm to write these words in a steady hand: God is unjust because he made man incapable of sustaining the effect of coca all life long. I would rather have a life span of ten years with coca than one of 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 centuries without coca.”
I don’t actually know how many countries I’ve been to. Between 9 ½ years in the military and a subsequent career that involves a lot of international collaborations, it’s got to be somewhere north of twenty (north of and other obscure American English expressions explained below, as usual). I cross many national borders, and I have never had any problems, either in foreign countries, or when returning to the United States. (I was really worried the time that I passed through French customs with a little bottle of American-made kosher wine in my luggage—I was going to be in Germany for Passover—but, they didn’t catch my nervousness, and I made it into the country without being searched.) Normally, when I return to the United States, I stick my passport into a Global Entry machine, it spits out a piece of paper with my photograph and various bits of information on it, I show that piece of paper to an Immigration officer, he waves me on, and I go about my business. This time, the paper was different: it had a big, black X on it. I showed it to the immigration officer. He asked for my passport, stuck it in an electric reader, and pushed buttons on his computer. Then more buttons, more buttons, and more buttons. Finally: how long have you been out of the country? “Less than 24 hours,” I said.
He pointed me towards an area off to the side of the Customs area that I’d never been to before. (Note the perfect tense had (never) been to and before—that means that I’m going there now.)
I took my suitcase and stood waiting while several Customs agents let me stand there and think for a while. Finally, a couple of them waved me over. Put your suitcase, backpack, and jacket on this table. I did. Then one of them asked me two questions: Is there anything you’d like to tell me before I open this? No. Have you ever been arrested before?
Uh-oh. As it turns out: no, I have never been arrested. (This might come as a surprise to those of you who know just how many tattoos I have, but: no, I haven’t.) Then they started going through my stuff, and when I say “going through,” I mean: searching, and searching very thoroughly. Throughout this, two Customs agents asked me the same questions, over and over, in a variety of ways: Why did you go to Peru? How long were you in Peru? How much cash are you carrying?
The answers didn’t change: For work. Under 24 hours. Under $100. Occasionally they threw in something different: do you have any narcotics? I carry a couple pills containing butalbital for migraines. Your employer paid for your plane ticket? Yes. (Actually, the organizers of the conference at which I gave a keynote paid for it, but my employer actually purchased the ticket—it didn’t seem like a good idea to introduce that level of complication into the conversation, though.) Their question about why I have so many pills in my luggage was easily dealt with—I’m old, I have shit wrong with me, although I didn’t put it in quite those terms—just said that I have prescriptions for everything, which is true. What really raised their eyebrows surprised me—the copy of New French feminisms in my backpack (edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courivron—it’s quite good), and the laminated photocopy of my passport that I carry in my suitcase in case of emergency.
It’s a good thing that I had a decently long layover, because this went on for quite a while. They pulled back the lining on the bottom of my suitcase. The nature of the bags of salted dried corn (corn is a Peruvian specialty, raised in many species and prepared in many ways) that I had purchased as gifts for friends back home were questioned. Inquiries were made as to my profession, what exactly informatics is, and in which countries my relatives reside. (For me, the most nervous-making part of an American border crossing is when the Immigration officer asks me to explain what I do for living—that used to happen a lot before I got my Global Entry card, and it’s hard enough for me to explain my profession in one sentence even when I haven’t just spent six to twelve hours sleeping only very fitfully during an airborne traversal of a very large ocean.) Finally they harrumphed, told me to take my stuff, and I was off to my next flight. Many years ago, I read a novel about a customs inspector, and marveled at/was skeptical about how easy it was for him to spot the lady with a fortune in undeclared currency sewn into the lining of her overcoat, or the man with a king’s ransom of diamonds encased in a salami. I didn’t bother asking why they had flagged me for a thorough search, though—it’s easy enough to guess that some algorithm noted my frequent international travel and my under-24-hours visit to a cocaine-producing country. No big mystery there–that’s what happens when you spend less than 24 hours in Peru, I guess. So: if you ever have the opportunity to visit that beautiful country, plan to stay a while—I plan to visit again, and next time, I’m going to eat some guinea pig.
Thanks to Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic search tools and corpora, for the examples. Check out their web site to see what sorts of things you can learn by exploring huge collections of naturally occurring language. No, they didn’t pay me to mention them–the opposite. I pay them a few hundred dollars a year for access to their fine offerings.
North of/south of: these expressions mean more than and less than, respectively. See the picture for a good example. How it showed up in the post: Between 9 ½ years in the military and a subsequent career that involves a lot of international collaborations, it’s got to be somewhere north of twenty [countries].
To catch: lots of idiomatic meanings. I used it in the post in this sense, taken from The Free Dictionary: To become cognizant or aware of suddenly: caught her gazing out the window. How it showed up in the post: …they didn’t catch my nervousness, and I made it into the country without being searched.