Saturday, September 30, 2017

Name of the Day: “Henery”

Back in 1965, when I still listened to the blandly homogenized pop medium known as Top 40 radio, a song soared onto the charts  that didn’t fit the rock & roll mold at all, and seemed to come from another world:  “I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am”.  It was harmless, charming, catchy.   Once ever you heard it, you could never forget it:

    I'm 'Enery the Eighth, I am,
    'Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
    I got married to the widow next door,
    She's been married seven times before
    And every one was an 'Enery
    She wouldn't have a Willie nor a Sam
    I'm her eighth old man named 'Enery
    'Enery the Eighth, I am!

Wikipedia (that fount of all that is good and true) provides the surprising background.  It is a British music-hall song dating back to as early as 1910 -- few indeed were the ditties of such venerable vintage that made it onto the pop playlists.  And yet -- scarcely to be credited:

In 1965, it became the fastest-selling song in history to that point when it was revived by Herman's Hermits.


What revived that memory  was a passage in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), referring to a simple workman of rural southwest England:

He always signed his name "Henery"—strenuously insisting upon that spelling, and if any passing schoolmaster ventured to remark that the second "e" was superfluous and old-fashioned, he received the reply that "H-e-n-e-r-y" was the name he was christened and the name he would stick to—in the tone of one to whom orthographical differences were matters which had a great deal to do with personal character. 

As kids, exposed to the ditty, we made no philological hypotheses concerning the trisyllabic name -- just something silly, metri causâ, we supposed.  But Hardy’s witness demonstrates that the pronunciation is time-honored among the English popular classes.
Yea indeed, still further up the scale:  for the regal name of Henry is trisyllabic in Shakespeare.

The medial schwa is not etymological, but the product of popular epenthesis (or anaptyxis, if you insist), like the pronunciation “ellum” for elm, or the by-form alarum from alarm.

Psycho-literary afternote:
This serial connubium, relentlessly running through no fewer than eight grooms, might be seen as a feminine revenge -- a payback with interest --  against the original polynubial King Henry, who actually limited himself to half a dozen.

"N-n-ex-x-x-t !!"

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Of Dullards and Dotards

“Rocket-Man versus The Dotard”:  it sounds like one of those wrestling events that The Donald used to impresario.   And it has elevated the fine old word dotard, which goes back as far as Chaucer,  into the flickering limelight of public attention.  To explain the word  were needless, as there is a nice summary here:

Note:  The word is sounded with a long "o":  DOTE-erd, almost rhyming with goat-herd.  Likewise the related word meaning 'senility', dotage.

But what younger readers may not realize (younger, that is, than four hundred years)  is that such spicy language on the public stage  is by no means an innovation.  For centuries, it has been the practice of controversialists   to belabor their opponents with colorful and inventive epithets.   Shakespeare’s plays well illustrate this.   Yet such slanging was not the province merely of playwrights and pamphleteers:  so sober a figure as Sir Thomas More, early sixteenth-century author and statesman (and ultimately martyr), and the subject of adulatory treatment in “A Man for All Seasons”,  whom no less than C. S. Lewis declared "a man before whom  the best of us must stand uncovered",  was a master of the genre.  His writings

… are by no means free from the scurrility which is characteristic of that age of controversy.  His opponents are “swine”, “hell-hounds that the devil hath in his kennel”, “apes that dance for the pleasure of Lucifer”, and so on.
-- The Cambridge History of English Literature, volume III: Renascence and Reformation (1908), p. 17.

Apes that dance, while Satan applauds!  If only Kim the Lesser had thought of that one!

As it is, this recent use of dotard  likely tumbled out of some old-fashioned Korean-English dictionary, rather than springing from the pen of any antiquarian Pyongyang polemicist.   Nonetheless, we applaud the momentary return to the scene, of this roguish old tatterdemalion vocable.


Despite the hoopla, dotard isn’t really so rara an avis as all that;  it should be familiar to anyone well-read.   Much more puzzling to American readers was the word wazzock, deployed back in 2012  against then-Presidential-candidate Mitt the Twit (to use another Britishism) after his lamentable junket to England.  You can read all about the word, and the episode, here:

     Word of the Day: “Wazzock”

And, for more on the variegated vocabulary of our present POTUS, this:


[Update 29 October 2017]  French politicians have  of late  been coming up with choice epithets for their opponents.   It’s fun, plus it guarantees headlines.  The latest:  Today’s JDD reports that premier ministre Edouard Philippe has mocked Les Républicains (the current cover-name for the disgraced UMP) as branquignols.  That means they’re barmy.
As for the etymology, the word is likely a blend of branlant ‘unstable’ and croquignole ‘a mild insult’.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Autumnal Equinox

All summer long  we lay at ease
adrift  amid  the daffodils;
by dawn refreshed, and evening breeze,
the while  the Sun  the sky-dome fills.

Yet now behold,  the face of Day
confronted is  with that of Night.
And each upholds  its war-array:
there, of Darkness;  here, of Light.

Stark at noon  the balance stands;
th’ assailants are  of equal strength.
Yet mark how,  as each day  extends
it fades,  and lapses  in its length!

How too encroaches  on the brink
of twilight, when the birds seek rest,
the swarthy foe who smears his ink
alike on cloud-banks, and on nest.

Thus ever did the Gods contend;
thus e’er, the Giants  whirl the wheel
of Ragnarok, while sinews rend;
until at length -- the Noon must kneel.

Soon groan the lands ‘neath Winter’s torment;
in dark  the linnets  cease to sing.
Yet grant Lord, though the fields like dormant,
that from our ash,  may spring -- the Spring!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Adventures in Juvenile Lexicography

Katherine Nelson, in Keith Nelson, ed., Children’s Language (1978), p. 66,  offered the following glimpse into the orismological instincts of budding lexicographers.  Asked a “What is it?” question about the word tiger (“a large, fierce, flesh-eating animal (Panthera tigris)…” to you and me), the tots responded:

(1) “at the zoo”
(2) “animal”
(3) “it’s like a lion:
(4) “lives in the jungle and runs a lot”
(5) “animal with stripes and it eats a lot of things”
(6) “to run”
(7) “someone growls”
(8) “hair on its head”

I then polled our son (aet. su. 4 years,  3 months), who offered this:

   “It’s something that is big, and it eats people, and it runs around in the jungle.”

His assessment of her other examples:

apple: “it’s juicy; it’s big; it’s round”

car:  “Something that’s big, and not so tall -- it’s this tall [shows with his arms];  it can kill someone that stays in front of it, if it’s moving.”

coat: “It’s something that keeps you warm, is big and sort of smooth, and has little furry stuff”  [Note:  Our family was at that time facing an Edmonton winter]

bed:  “It has legs, or doesn’t, and it has a pillow, and it stands up on its posts”.
[Note: That first idea in the definiens, at once oddly precise and maddeningly vague, probably meant:  “Prototypically a bed has legs (the ones you see in books), but ours doesn’t” -- the family, indeed, then in exile and furniture-poor, slept on a mattress on the floor.]

Striking  is this repeated note of ‘big’, present in every definition except the last:  extending even to the humble apple -- even a baby is bigger than an apple, let alone a robust four-year-old.   But in light of the lad’s subsequent specialization in differential geometry, an explanatory hypothesis presents itself.  What may well have struck him was the apple’s unabashed convexity -- round, not like a thin dime, but round all around:  having everywhere positive and (roughly) constant Riemannian curvature, as he would no doubt rephrase the definition upon more mature reflection.  Such an apperception of an apple was indeed the Eureka moment of the founder of differential geometry, Carl Friedrich Gauss, as depicted in the movie “Die Vermessung der Welt”.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sad Hamster

The notion of some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing

Rules of Evidence

Farther back than Iago, or than those who slandered A’ishah (the Prophet’s denunciation of whom  constitutes the longest of the Ahâdîth), stands, or rather skulks, the figure of the Calumniator (al-wāšī, el calumniador):  impugning the reputation of a faithful lover, to break up a union.   The question of motive is something of a mystery.

A comparatively innocent instantiation was the 1960 song “Staying In”, sung with teenage angst but on a gently rocking rhythm

I punched my buddy in the nose after lunch.
Now I'm in trouble 'cause the dean saw the punch
He was tellin' things that were not true about her
So I let him have it in the:  cafeteri-a.

Now I'm stayin' in,   stayin' in
Now my baby's walkin' home with him.
They passed my window hand-in-hand just then
But what can I do? 'cause I'm stayin' in.

If she just knew what that son-of-a-gun said
I know she wouldn't   be caught    with him dead
She don't know what he has got up his sleeve
But she would find out if I could only leave
(Note, by the by, that here, by dint of syncopated ictus, the lyricist manages to make her rhyme with cafeteria.  No mean feat.)

By 1963, the tone was less Galahadean, and meaner: “My Boyfriend’s Back”.  A girl sneers with Schadenfreude at the thrashing her calumniator will soon receive:

You’ve been telling lies   that I was un-true-hoo.
Well look out now,  ‘cause he’s coming after you-hoo!

The rhythm here is relentless, four-on-four, like a sledgehammer, or a fist on a face.

Antedating these is a gem from that vintage year of 1959: "My Heart is an Open Book".

Some jealous so-and-so
wants us to  part
That’s why he’s telling you
that I’ve got -- a cheating heart.

Don’t  - be - lieve !
All   -  those - lies !
Dar-ling just be-  lieve your eyes, and

My heart is an  op-en book.
No-bod-y  but : You.

It is difficult to convey, in mere print (however much we fiddle with the formatting), the plain candor, the openness, conveyed by this song.   He does not argue the matter, but lets himself be read:  like Jesus in the oleographs, pointing to a glowing heart within his chest.
The music too reflects this simplicity, though in an antisymmetric way.   A chirpy girl-choir accompaniment  trips lightly up the scale, like cherubs on the stairway to heaven:  “Tootle-e-tootle-e-tootle-e-TOOT!”;  while on the key pleading, containing the whole of the singer’s epistemology, his voice descends, unhurriedly,


like Plato descending the steps in the “School of Athens”.


To return:   For most crimes, whether pecuniary or violent, the payoff for the perpetrator is manifest.  But what could motivate the Calumniator? In the “Staying In” case, apparently bare rivalry: the calumniator wants the same girl (thou one suspects that a relationship cadged by such means  will be unstable).  But that is not the case with Iago, nor with the “so-and-so” here.   No self-interest is readily discernable;  the motivation appears to be actually Satanic.
Or, perhaps, there are unconscious motivations.   To expend your envy, you can do something as simple as keying the guy’s Jaguar.   But here, crucially, the goal is not so much to injure the Envied One in his person, as to deprive him of an amour:  thus incidentally (in fantasy) placing him back in play…  But such spelunking we leave to the Viennese alienist.