I grew up in America reading English books, that is to say books that had been written in England. I was so clueless about this distinction that when I got to college I took English 10, the introductory course, which omitted any books written in the United States. I had made no distinction between American books and English ones. I also was pretty oblivious to distinctions in both meaning and spelling. For instance, I was frequently corrected for spelling gray as grey and theater as theatre.
This morning’s crossword puzzle reminded me of a phrase that was my nemesis throughout my childhood. Every time there was a mention of “old school ties” I was baffled. Why were they so focused on OLD ties anyway? And even if I began to think maybe it referred to ties from a boy’s OLD SCHOOL, I still had no clue to what the author was suggesting.
The crossword puzzle writer apparently has decided that the phrase simply means “nepotism.” But after sitting down with the dictionary, I seem to understand that the phrase is more nuanced than that. As far as I can gather, the wearing of a tie from one’s old school signals something to another person about one’s background and position in society. This allows favoritism, or nepotism, to a fellow tie wearer. So the phrase plays on two meanings of the word “tie,” both the literal object and the reference to connection.
But I am hopeful that a genuine English speaker can help me further clarify this phrase. After all, I speak American.