Philology Phriday–Strand

8 Oct

This is a passage I found from the seminal “Buying Work Gloves” manual, mandatory though engrossing reading from the shell of my summer employment at my parents’ glove selling business. While thinking of the word for this week, strand, the image of this passage flashed its brilliance on the insides of my closed eyelids. I often think of strands in the context of yarn or thread. I sew strands of thread into these awesome gloves.

Through the process of double indirect association, a dubious though interesting way to make passages mean something very different from their intent, the three paragraphs above made me think of the story-telling metaphor, and folklore lingo, “spinning a yarn”. If that becomes a metaphor underpinning the whole of the passage, it is interesting to see what is being unsaid, or maybe under-read is a better term, about the process of story-telling. The group of yarns, yarns=stories, become something of archetypes, all running parallel to each other, forming spaces to be filled in by obtrusive and axial counter-yarns. Even odder is the term “warp,” because it connotes a strangeness about the whole thing, an oddity, or maybe a bending in some sense, like the yarns (or stories) themselves are meant to be bent. More of the analogy can be teased out, but I will let you do that. Suffice it to say,  the thread-idea of strand I had led me to associate the word with the craft of fiction.

But the word has four noun entries alone in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first use of the word, stemming from Old Norman strond, actually meant an area of land bordering a body of water. Milton’s “Lycidas” immediately popped in my mind, specifically the money quote: “Now Lycidas, the Shepherds weep no more;/ Hence for Thou art the Genius of the Shore” (ll. 182-183).

This association really hurts the strength of the thought I was trying to weave before. It seems that the early idea of strand lent itself to a more poetic metaphor. How many poems do you know that take as their object something on the shore? Howabout Arnold’s Dover Beach?

Even more interesting is that the word seems to change in meaning to mean also a stream. My sleep-deprived, associative mind wants to jump immediately to a stream of consciousness.

But then Spencer’s Faerie Queen uses the word to describe the sea, or at least a sheet of water.This conflated use of both land bordering body of water and the water itself persisted for quite a while, being in popular use from the 12th to the 15th centuries in England.

Is this strand thing getting as confusing for you as it is for me?

The use that I started with, that of a thread, found its way into English-speaking mouths by the turn of the 16th century. How can we explain the unrelatedness of these two meanings? An uncited scholar in the OED proposes that this meaning of the word came from an adoption of the word strain in Old French.

It seems then that my confusion is completely warranted. The word has multiple tributaries that lead us (or at least me) to a dual-association. I can connect it to both poetry and fiction. In the last beats of my brain before it just shuts off for a nap, I wonder if maybe strand is the strand that binds poetry to fiction.


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