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I read an illustrated magazine and find the following sentence along with the illustration. Please help paraphrase, thank you.

In an age that was only just beginning to flirt with impropriety, there was still employment for this bathing-machine attendant, somewhere on the coast of England 1900. But a new morality threatened.

picture of a magazine page

2 Answers 2

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This is a complex sentence. It presents ideas out of order, it uses metaphor for dramatic effect, and some details are unspoken.

Simple English translation:

This photograph is from the year 1900. The person in this photograph was employed as an attendant. The attendant's employment involved bathing-machines on the coast of England. Around the time of this photograph, public opinion was changing about what was moral and proper. Public opinion was against impropriety at this time.

Context:

Ref. http://www.victoriana.com/Etiquette/bathingmachine.htm

The Bathing-Machine was a device for allowing women to swim or bathe in the sea without being seen. In England in 1900, a woman was expected to be fully covered below the neck at all times, so there was no practical way to swim without inviting scandal. The Bathing-Machine was a small room on wheels, where a woman could change into a bathing suit and be rolled to the sea. From there, she could enjoy the water, wading and splashing as she likes, and satisfy the demands of modesty.

The bathing-machine attendant was responsible for moving the machine into and back out of the sea, as well as guarding the women's valuables. This is a job that only exists if society demands that women use Bathing-Machines to preserve their modesty. As bathing suits became more acceptable, the need for Bathing-Machine attendants disappeared.

Metaphorical language

The author has decided to make this story more colorful and dramatic by adding metaphors. Here are a few of the phrases explained:

  • "In an age" : An "age" can be any time period with a specific quality that sets it apart from what came before and after. The author is talking about the time period during which morality was just beginning to shift.

  • "beginning to flirt with impropriety" : To flirt with someone is to engage in light, romantic banter; To flirt with something is to approach it with the same kind of cautious engagement. This phrasing has a double-meaning, since it describes the very cautious early stages of a change in morality, using a word that implies sexual mischief.

  • "a new morality threatened" : From context, we know that when bathing suits become acceptable, the Bathing-Machine is unnecessary. Therefore, the Bathing-Machine Attendant could become unemployed as a result of a change in acceptable behavior. In this sense, the Bathing-Machine Attendant's job is threatened, not by violence, but by change.

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  • Thank you for your help. Please take note that in the picture there are some words in Chinese, which are the translation of the English. Let me translate it back to English word for word so that you can help me to determine whether the translation is OK or not. "1900. Somewhere in England. Although it is an age of rare occurance of unacceptable behaviors,the bathing-machine still needs a special person to be hired to look after it. And the new issue (problem)of morality arises." Sep 5, 2017 at 8:21
  • @NanningYouth The translation you provided is still ambiguous to me. The author discusses "unacceptable behaviors" and "morality" but does not explain exactly how they relate to the subject of the photograph. We can guess it relates to the bathing-machine becoming obsolete, but the author could also be making a different point. I would expect the next few sentences to provide context.
    – user11628
    Sep 5, 2017 at 16:15
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The sentence could be rephrased:

But a new immorality loomed on the horizon.

The new mores regarding modesty of dress are presented as a threat (to the existing mores... [edit:] or to the job of bathing-house attendant).

The word threatened could be used ironically, that is, the author might not identify with those who saw the change in mores as a threat, and is simply presenting a view commonly held at the time: for many, a new morality threatened to replace the old one.

P.S. The verb threaten can be used transitively, or like "loom" in the paraphrase, intransitively . When intransitive, the meaning is "to be a likely danger, risk, or an otherwise unwelcome but probable eventuality".

Rain threatened. rain was likely

When intransitive, there is no direct object, but there can be a complement which presents the nature of the threat:

Rain threatened to spoil the picnic.

The rising river threatened to inundate the town.

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  • Thank you for your help. Does "threaten" imply "going to happen"? It looks like the sentence needs an objective to make itself complete. A new morality is under threat or a new morality makes the job (or habit) threatened. Sep 5, 2017 at 8:24
  • @NanningYouth: Please see the P.S.
    – TimR
    Sep 5, 2017 at 10:52
  • @NanningYouth: and with respect to your comment above asking about the translation. In the phrase "the bathing-house needs [an attendant] to be hired" implies that there was still sufficient demand for modesty that the paid position of bathing-house attendant still existed. And "threatened" is not a bad translation for "arises" there. In English the commonplace would be "was on the horizon" (that is, was beginning to appear, like the rising sun, or some other thing that has just come into view in the distance).
    – TimR
    Sep 5, 2017 at 11:10

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