PITCAIRN CANARY! This expression is in fact an approximation of a real expression — now forgotten — that S.J. Perelman coined fifty or sixty years ago in one of his many amusing New Yorker pieces. The issue in which I saw this particular piece, along with the phrase in question, would not have been a current issue at the time I read it, or even a newish one. It would have been just recent enough that I might have come across it in my piano teacher’s waiting room, where perhaps two decades’ worth of the venerable magazine were scattered about, along with innumerable National Geographics. (I was always early for my lesson, in order to have plenty of time — while the beautiful girl with orthopedic shoes two-fisted her Études ahead of me — to scan for bare Tongan breasts and Charles Saxon cartoons of lecherous Wall Street types.)
Perelman’s was the only grown-up prose I liked back then. His name was the one name — posted at the end of the article in those days — I would routinely have looked for. (Sometimes the baseball guy, too, although I never understood how he could know what was going on in the head of whomever, Yaz or Tom Terrific; I was pretty sure he was making that stuff up.) Whatever Perelman’s actual phrase was, its insight must have impressed me deeply. The experience it connoted felt like something that I was going through constantly. And his deft choice of words, as memorable as they were forgettable, may well have resembled those of my made-up pastiche, with that internal rhyming and consonance, and that palindromic lilt (although I’m doubtful his was a palindrome). Perelman’s locution may even have included a species of bird, and possibly an island, too, the site of some famous mutiny. Who knows?
Anyway, that coinage — and my misremembered approximation, which I have used ever since, almost to the point of being able to claim part-credit — referred to the unsettling phenomenon of hearing an unusual or exotic word and noting its meaning, only to discover in subsequent hours or days that EVERYONE IN THE WORLD seems to know the word already and has been USING IT WITH GREAT FREQUENCY all along! Only you, YOU ALONE, have never heard this word before; only you are surprised by its convenient existence.
For verbal people, then, it’s a kind of waking lexical nightmare, equally upsetting as those dreams of arriving at your third grade classroom without noticing — until it is far too late — that you’ve neglected to bring not only your Humpbacked Whale report but your pants as well.
The Pitcairn Canary could, I suppose, additionally represent similar phenomena involving things other than unfamiliar words. For instance, the very experience that prompted me to write this little essay, this confession. Being about as well-read (that ludicrous Victorianism!) as it’s possible to be in our epoch of Mutually Assured Destruction, digital poker, and multiple filmed versions of Pride & Prejudice, I nevertheless find that a great, great writer — James Robison — has been churning out and publishing major and minor masterpieces right under my nose WITHOUT MY NOTICING!
Nor is this an example of collective ignorance. This is not like theweirdness of everyone in France conveniently forgetting a 1961 police massacre, those hundreds of Algerian corpses tossed into the Seine and floating for days afterward in full view of workaday Parisians. This is not like the case of Harold Shapinsky, the Abstract Expressionist painter who fell through the cracks and was later rediscovered by Professor Ramachander, eventually to be restored to long-overdue public consciousness by Lawrence Weschler.
No, this was MY SINGULAR IGNORANCE, revealed to me recently by Kurt Wilde (a great-great nephew of Oscar Wilde), who recommended to me Robison’s extraordinary 1988 novel The Illustrator. Yes, I am the one, I ALONE AM THE ONE WHO FUCKING BLEW IT.