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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.


Philology Phriday––Love

20 Aug

We have heard the words before. That song that questions the very core of our romantic longings, our pursuits of affection, and our idealization of something called the heart that doesn’t refer at all really to the organ pumping blood through webs and highways of veins. What is love? Baby, it don’t hurt me. Don’t Hurt Me. No more.

The word has been the distillation of many roots, many of which seem intriguingly tangential to our now present conception of love. There’s the Old Saxon “luba” which meant something similar to inclination or proclivity toward another human. “Luba” shares a root with the Old Saxon “lubig” that was used in mainly religious contexts to denote someone who is willing and pious. There are other instances of this quasi-religious connotation with love’s roots. The Old English “lufen” and its Gothic counterpart “lof” (the most likely precursor to our “love”) both meant hope.

With these terms swirling around in everyday use, our earliest known notions of love were centered on hope and willingness and piety, all things which we can properly connect to romantic love if we are given the right bits of insight into societal norms back then. Most states were feudal in the Middle Ages, around then time these terms were starting to be used. The feudal state had tiny microcosms, little peripatetic courtly societies. Each court had a hierarchy. There was the lord, his knights, and of course the lady. With these characters cast, the tale of love is fairly simple. In fact, as Georges Duby writes in Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, romantic love, courtly love, fine amour, was a literary movement spurred on by the prevailing social norms of the society. Court poets, commonly known as troubadours, wrote tales of knights fighting for the favors of the lady. And these poems were widely accepted and heavily affective on the reading (or shall we say listening) public of those times. In fact, Duby goes on to say, these courtly romances were written to inspire knights by playing on their most gelatinous insides––their minds and their hearts.

But this inspiration was grounded in a strange kind of imperative that the lady be as suppressed in her desires as possible. To make the situation inspiring, it had to be mostly devoid of hope. To increase the need for aggression, the idea of it had to be fruitless. What could be more frustrating than something that is tantalizingly unsatisfying? Why is love so frustrating?

What else is love? Baby, it don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me. No more.

Watch the video. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

Philology Phriday––Kinky

13 Aug

I’ve been noticing lately just how much kink is in these days. Almost everywhere you turn, and by this I mean any website or tv channel you go to, kink abounds. Lady Gaga? Kink. She’s a kinky little minx who has sold billions and billions of albums by dressing down (even too far down for a casual philology phriday) in leather thongs studded with rhinestones and wielding a trusty horsewhip. These are the kinds of images a word like kink connotes. Kinky, thus, means something like a sexual fixation on something that is not normal. Don’t worry, I won’t wax philosophic or poetic on what “normal sex” could even possibly mean. But in case I do, the safety word is peuptypants.

But where does this idea of perversion come from? Kink, the root from which we get the adjective kinky, is found in a lot of old European languages. There’s the Dutch “kink” and the German “kinke”. Even Swedish and Icelandic have a kink-esque word––the Icelandic “kikna” meant, strangely enough, to bend at the knees.

In the first uses of the word in English, the word kink was a largely nautical term:

“(n) a short twist or curl in rope, thread, hair, or wire, at which it is bent upon itself; esp. when stiff so as to catch or cause obstruction.”

(This, it turns out, is also the same sense that came from the early use of the word “crick”.)

Further in the word’s evolution it meant a general bend in a line or deviation from a normal curve. This is the germ that leads to the early 19th century association of kink with mental irregularity. Thomas Jefferson uses the phrase “kink in their heads” in a letter dated back in 1803. This link to the brain only needs a Freudian-obsessive society to kick it in the direction of psycho-sexual divergence. T.S. Eliot in “Encounter” (1950) shows how far the word has become fetishized: “Hates kissing. Undertakes most kinks…but no buggery.” So, the association between kinkiness and sexual perversion is a fairly new thing, around 60 years old, which in the philological world is the blink of an eye.

But if we look at where the word’s use started, we have to see that some of its underlying meaning has stuck with it, like, well, handcuffs. That idea of bending upon itself is clearly visible in the way we think of kinky behavior. It is at first a bend, a diversion from the norm, and at second a bend toward oneself, a bend for the self. Kink is a perversion for one’s own sexual satisfaction. The obstructive idea within a kink is, of course, what causes this sense of pleasure. The handcuffs, the paddles, the tight leather unmentionables, the whips––these are all obstructions. No one walks around in tight leather because it makes them feel free and the same is with handcuffs. The nautical kink is a great metaphor for the kinda kink Gaga’s into.

But then, of course, kink is always associated with a fault––hence it’s early interchangeability with “crick”. I know I said I wouldn’t wax anything on actual sex, but what can I say? I’m into wax. The idea of an obstruction is of course nothing new to me. I’m a humongous fan of the idea that obstructions are in fact an important part of what make an experience meaningful. Why is it so wrong that the same principle be applied in the bedroom or mock-dungeon? And who’s to say that “normal” sex is obstructionless? What with all the hormonal imbalances and sometimes uncontrollable bodily functions, not to mention the seemingly unhealthy mental states deep sexual attractions catalyze, it seems that all sex is kinky.

Philology Phriday––Jest

6 Aug

The word jest, as we have come to know it now, is usually associated with joking, jocularity, joviality, levity, and things of that nature. However, the root of the word would show a very different meaning of the word when first used. And its evolution could help us find out something of our own conceptions on the, you know, big L-word.

Jest is actually an alternate spelling (found mainly in Old French and then carried on to English) of the word “gest”. “Gest” comes from the Latin “gesta” meaning actions or exploits (most explicitly of supposedly great men) and was most often used in discussions of war. For an even deeper look into the word’s history, we should see that “gesta” is the neuter plural of “guests”––the past participle of “gerare”, meaning to carry on. Gests were heroic tales of actions or exploits, stories of courage, epics of great human beings carrying on despite some given obstacle.

The word as is spelled in English today actually comes from the Old French feminine of “geste”––”jeste”. This too meant actions or exploits, but in a slightly different way. The latinate use of the word connoted bravery in acts of war or in defeating the gods, etc. However, the French meaning of the word is always connected with the then popular writings of troubadours, essentially writers of tales for the kingly court. These lyrics of the troubadours were most often romances, like Tristan and Isolde or the loosely connected tales of King Arthur. And what were these romances’s main themes. Most revolved around a myth of chivalric love, the idea that a knight fought and battled for the love of the courtly lady––most likely a princess. The main character of these tales would endure many travails along the way to achieving the central goal of receiving the favor of his fair lady. Thus in olden France, this is what a jest was, the telling or performance of a romance for the king’s court. And this feeling of romance was meant to inspire the king’s (or lord’s) men to fight indirectly for the king, although they were thinking mainly of fighting for the love of the lady.

But then, how did such a romantic thing become such a joke? There is no exact history of the shift but little irregularities do start to pop up in the late 15th century that connect jest with an idle tale, a performance solely for entertainment. Romance as entertainment, who would uh thunk it. In 1577, well after the inception and evolution of the courtly troubadour’s tales of romance, Gascoigne writes in what is called THE MEMORIES: “Thus this foolish jest, I put in doggrel rime” associating the romance of “jest” with the slightly less weighty “foolish” and “doggrel”, essentially showing the monumental shift in how we started to think about romance. The knights of the court started to get tired of the tale and its empty promise. But oddly enough, instead of rebelling against the already-embedded culture of jest-telling, the court started to see romances for what they were––idle and meant solely for entertainment.

And since these court romances are so indoctrinated in our western ways of romance, i.e. Love (that’s right, I used a capital letter), I wonder if this connection between romance and entertainment (or romance and idleness) as opposed to romance and fulfillment has had any effects on the way we conceive of love and romance. Do we consider our ideas of gushy romance, juicy and sensuous and uncontrollable, to be an empty tale we tell ourselves? Is love merely a bad joke to keep us going?

Philology Phriday––Iamb

30 Jul

Thanks to a good friend, I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. Thus with poetry on the proverbial noggin, I’ve decided that Philology Phriday will be dedicated to the much-understudied iamb––one of the most common metrical units w/i like all of the Western poetic canon. Meter, and this is something I’ve learned only fairly recently, has a lot of meaning w/i a poem. Its use signifies something, especially as most poets have been seen as grappling with the long long long history of poetry––the longest standing (though, one could see it as the holding on for dear life like a granny in a nursing home holds on to her walker, pressing all of her weight on to those two dusty and overfuzzed tennis balls) written/verbal art in the history of the West. And a nota bene: Hegel ate this poetry shit up. For Breakfast. Lunch. and Midnight Snacks.

But back to iambs. Let’s take this line for instance:

“Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?”

Read it out loud in your best impression of a Greek guy (who as we now know from the historical filmic data spoke most like a british guy or a scottish one). Okay good. Now again with special attention to the rhythm of the stressed and unstressed syllables. Did you hear how you said it, you dirty little iamber you? You just spake iambic-ly.

An iamb was supposed to be the most common meter of everyday speech. Yet, when its root, iambus, was used in classical Greece it meant most closely “to assail with language.” Why so harsh you (and I ask). It turns out that iambic speech, especially in the form of trimeter (meaning 3 iambs) was the form of the classical satires of the West’s first satirists, Archilochus and Hipponax.

So then when Shakespeare or Milton or Wordsworth (who pledged rather melodramatically his undying love for the speech of common men in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads) write iambs are they really just assaulting us with a barrage of stressed-unstressed syllabic ammunition? Did they know so much as to think we go on, we the common readers (in order to form a more perfect union), walk around spouting out our meditations on nightingales or old vases or death or whatever we see lying around (people of the opposite sex included) in some sort of centrally planned rationing out of this-is-stressed-this-is-not formulation of language?(!) That is a farce. They’re not that smart. And neither are we. I know I certainly don’t go thinking about what I say and write on such a base level, and I’m fairly normal. So how can this work, this apparent gap between the style of poets and the unstyles of, well, me?

Here’s one thought, maybe the recognition of a pattern in one doesn’t necessarily mean the reality or presence of said presence universally (or even within a larger context). How do you poets like them apples? So maybe I do speak and think in iambs. So what. Does this mean that everything I say and write is poetry? Am I poetic? Well, if I am, then you are too.

Philology Phriday––Human

23 Jul

Are we human or are we dancer? This is the question of the day. So important and pressing that I’d like to spend today’s philology phriday looking at the use of the word human.

It is an adjective that stems from the Latin humanus which meant, as the OED glosses, “characteristic of people, civilized, cultured, cultivated, kindly, or considerate”. The Middle French humain was used to specify characteristics belonging to people as opposed to animals or god(s), thus placing people in a very strange third space between the divine and the animal, almost as if humans are alone in this existence (just as god(s) and animals are) left without anyone to truly connect with besides themselves. A sad conception, no?

The word is also used in parasynthetic adjective combinations like human-headed or human-hearted, once again implying a sense of difference or speciality. The head or the heart is human as opposed to just being a head or a heart. Other uses of human are non parasynthetic, a big one being THE HUMAN CONDITION, which again classifies human existence as different from other existences, not necessarily special or better, but different. Some, however, would claim that the human condition is the best of the conditions. Mark Twain even wrote, although satirically, that the World Was Made for Man (man, of course, being the long-used sexist classification for human being (human also being opposed to just being)):

“Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; & anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno.”

I think I have implied heavily-handed enough what this idea of difference between human and non-human does. The well-known Australian philosopher Peter Singer also had something to say on the matter. He is famous for his argument against “speciesism” or discrimination based on species. He argues that a utilitarian ethic should take into account the well-being of all beings, and that “speciesist” favoritism of human beings over other beings is an incomplete utilitarianism. I’m unsure if he’s actually on to something. But if I had to state my own beliefs, I would only say that it seems near-impossible for human beings to consider the well-being of all beings, proven emphatically by our incessant lack of regard for our own species. Then again, who am I to say what approach toward a more just world is appropriate. If it takes a holer holistic approach, then so be it. But let’s tread lightly, as we’re still wondering if we are human or dancer, still not really knowing what each term really means only how it is used in certain (musical/philosophical) contexts.

Philology Phriday––Genius

16 Jul

Now Lycidas the Shepherds weep no more;
Hence for thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood
(“Lycidas” ll. 182-185)

I must say that I’ve been waiting to do a “g” word ever since I started doing Philology Phriday. The main reason for this expectancy, this giddiness, is really my love of the poem “Lycidas” by John Milton. I think Milton uses the word to show an ambiguous equivalency between the idea of “genius” and his poetic subject, Lycidas. The poem was written on the passing of a school buddy in a tragic drowning accident, the buddy’s name, however, not being Lycidas but something else I can’t remember off the top of my head. To contextualize the snippet I’ve epigraphed this post with, I’ll just say that at this point, Lycidas is dead, and the poet-bard is telling the dead Lycidas essentially what will become of him in the after-life. And this sparks a great discussion of the first appositive noun Milton ascribes to our dear, fallen Lycidas.

Genius is actually a word with common ancestry in Latin and Greek, of which both cultures used the word in its not so literal sense (literally, to be born, to come into being, or to beget) but instead used the term GENIUS as a moniker for the tutelary god or spirit that was allotted to every person @ birth to govern his/her fortunes, dictate his/her character, and a bit more morosely, conduct him/her out of the world into his/her afterlife. This could be one lens to aid in reading the ascription of GENIUS Milton places on dear Lycidas, but I think there may be more.

In fact, around the spill of the 16th century into the 17th (the century that contains Milton’s life and works) the term started to become something else. Instead of being something like a guardian angel or the Christain equivalent devil and angel on opposing shoulders, GENIUS soon came to mean not the spirit anymore, but a quasi-mythologic personification of something immaterial (like a virtue, custom, or institution––––>maybe things like intelligence, but maybe even something as abstract and substantial as death itself). This has to color our reading at least slightly. Or at least complicate it.

For if Lycidas, the mythic representation of the man drowned at sea, is in fact an embodiment of some mythological substance, we got some problems. How can a mythic be anything other than mythic? What does this tautology mean? There is a way out of this abyss of confusion, but you’ll have to trust me. If we think of this more modern sense of the word, it is classically (or maybe clichely) modern of humans to transform and twist the word’s meaning from a simple classificatory noun used to describe essentially an attendant spirit or daemon into the personification of this. An attempt to see the fingerprint of humanity in even the divine, the new use of the word GENIUS is exactly what Milton is acting out in this poem. The mythic Lycidas is really just a myth superimposed on a human, so that instead of being a “quasi-mythologic personification” Lycidas’ being “the Genius of the shore” is (and this may be the protean step to the now modern conception of genius that I glossed above) a “quasi-human mytholigization”. Lycidas is really just some dude (call him Johnny) who has been mythologized by a poem, and in this mythologization, Milton has turned that dude into that myth. He has genius-ified that dude by calling him Genius (and Lycidas), making the whole poem a long, rhythmic, and rhymic performative utterance. Isn’t that kinda cool?