e a m harris

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Archive for the category “Words”

‘Cold Comfort Farm’ by Stella Gibbons – very inventive

92780I’ve just finished reading Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons and I’m wondering how I didn’t read it before. No one told me it had beautifully written descriptions (and I’m not a lover of description usually). Nor had I known that it’s full of lovely neologisms and dialect; who could resist cowdling a mommet or inhaling the perfume of the sukebind. You could even teazle a scranlet, though it might be uncomfortable.

The book, written in the 1930s, is a satire on the rural misery novels popular at the time. But like any good satire it stands on its own and doesn’t require familiarity with the likes of Mary Webb.

The heroine, Flora, orphaned at twenty and with very little money, accepts an invitation to live with her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm. She arrives to find the farm in chaos and its numerous inhabitants filled with angst, misery, regret and a good many other horrible emotions. Instead of joining the doom, gloom and victimhood, Flora sets to work to overturn the current malaise and sort out her relatives lives.

One of the things I particularly liked about this book is that it’s a tale of success. Through hard work and cunning Flora succeeds in setting up her various aunts, uncles and cousins with the kinds of life they really want. She then falls into the arms of a handsome, rich man – but don’t expect traditional romance, this is satire.

The book was filmed in the 1990s and one day I hope to see this version.

Cover art from Goodreads.

On re-reading ‘The Rattle Bag’

7fb35406cc300cf593138475541434f414f4141For my late night reading lately I’ve been re-reading The Rattle Bag, a poetry anthology edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. Apparently the original intention was a collection aimed at the young or new poetry reader, but it doesn’t shirk serious subjects like death, love or loneliness. I love it and, to judge by the reviews around the web, so do many other not-so-young people.

Here is a collection of poems to which the term ‘quirky’ seriously applies, though there are plenty of ‘normal’ poems for readers who like their quirky in moderate doses.

On a more serious level the book goes to the edge of what poetry is, both in subject and form: midnight mice, no punctuation and horses eating violins crowd together with the more traditional.

One of the innovations is to arrange the poems alphabetically by title. This means that the usual pattern of date or subject is broken up. Sylvia Plath is on the same page as Shakespeare, while a pet cat precedes a pilgrim.

I’ve had this book for some years (it was published in 2005) and have read most of the poems already, some several times. However, this time I’ve had a serious look at the glossary at the back.

Many of the entries are dialect or archaic terms I already knew, and some I don’t really want to know: should I care that a danegun is an “old firearm, fairly primitive”?

But there are plenty of new-to-me words to enjoy. I’ve seen many solons (gannets) in my time, but have never met a goney (albatross). As I write the gullies (seagulls) are squawking outside. I didn’t know a rack was a cloud in the upper air and I wonder if, like other clouds, it can be scrowed (streaked).

The words of Gerard Manley Hopkins and others

Cover artRecently I did a post on the words listed in Landmarks By Robert MacFarlane.

In the glossaries are several words attributed to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Words like endragoned for a raging sea, or bright-borough for an area of sky thickly strewn with stars. I never knew we needed a word for ‘thickly strewn with stars’, but looking at it I can see it could be useful and poetic.

I had not realised that Hopkins went in for neologisms in a big way, but I’m not very familiar with his poetry. So I decided to read up on it and found several interesting websites: Crossref-it.info and The Wonderful World of English among them.

Science fiction should be a good hunting ground for novelty in all forms including words, and academia positively blizzards invented/imagined/redefined terminology.

I’ve known people who really hate invented words, but IMHO without all these authors developing new words, our language would be poor indeed.

Bird words

51umy7zgnll-_sx328_bo1204203200_I’ve just bought a lovely little book: A Conspiracy of Ravens compiled by Samuel Fanous.

It’s a list of collective nouns for birds. Apparently, creating these words was a pastime of hunters in times past. Now, thankfully, they are the province of word-hunters looking for novel ways of describing the world.

I’ve known a gaggle of geese and a murmuration of starlings since childhood, but most of the collectives in this book are new to me: a fling of dunlins; a pitch of orioles; a raft of auks! I wish I could think of a literary use for them.

Some of the names are so fitting. How about a paddling of ducks or an ostentation of peacocks? And some, like a bellowing of bullfinches, make me laugh.

With an interesting forward by Bill Oddie and woodcut illustrations by Thomas Bewick, this book is a real gem.

Calling to animals

I’ve recently been reading Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane; a book recording the wide range of words used to describe landscape in the British Isles.

Cover artThe meat of the book is a series of glossaries of the words the author has gathered, in most of the native languages and dialects. He gives us words not only in English and its regional dialects, but in Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, Scots and its dialects, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, and the French of the Channel Islands. I haven’t seen any words in Manx but they’re probably there.

Also included are some technical terms and poetic ones, particularly those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who apparently went in for creating new words to describe the countryside.

Between the glossaries are a series of essays-cum-memoires on various landscape writers.

Browsing through the glossary on Livestock, I came across báini-báini, an Irish word for calling pigs to eat. Later in the list is chook-chook-chook, a Herfordshire call to chickens. In the same county you call your ducks with dilly-dilly-dilly and your poultry generally with kepp-kepp-kepp.

Horses, cattle, sheep all have their own calling words.

This made me think about the way we speak and call to animals generally, and it’s true that we use different calls for different creatures. Do they understand us? If you yell ‘Dilly-dilly-dilly!’ to hens, do they ignore you? Or do they come anyway hoping for a treat?

Many’s the time I’ve stood in a garden calling ‘Puss, puss, puss’ with no result. Is that because she doesn’t understand or is it because she doesn’t want to come? I suspect the latter.

Oddly, in my experience, we use general terms for most animals but call our dogs by name. I think that if we kept monkeys we’d call them by name too. It would be interesting to hear if anyone knows.

Light on the subject – but what kind?

Today I logged into Wordnik for the first time in many months. As you can guess, if you don’t already know it, Wordnik is about words – finding, gathering, listing, sharing, commenting.

Browsing through my collection I was reminded of the words I’d garnered in the past, including one of my favourites: lucubratory. This word has two meanings that may of may not be related. One is laborious or painstaking. The other is much more poetic; composed by candlelight or by night or pertaining to night studies.

A special word for composed by candlelight!candle-197248__180

I imagine an old-time sage painstakingly writing out poems or music (or both – maybe he’s a singer/songwriter) by the light of a guttering and smelly candle; which is all he can afford until people recognise his genius and reward him accordingly. Preferably while he’s still around to enjoy it.

Are there words for composed by torchlight or electric-light? Do we need them?

Composed by moonlight is a beautiful thought: shall we call it lunabratory?  I suspect even a determined sage would find it difficult to see well enough by the moon alone.

Perhaps fairies compose by firefly light, and mermaids by deep-sea squid light.

On a more serious note, is writing or composing affected by the kind of light used? Do candles encourage the romantic and halogen the aggressive? I think it likely to have an effect, but I also think it would be both individual and very subtle.

Rhapsodomancy: a form of divination

Rhapsodomancy is another word new to me, and one that actually has some application. It means using the text of a poem to foretell the future.41VKAAY5nvL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_

According to Wikipedia there are several ways of determining which poem to use. Some of the systems involve writing a poem or some poems’ titles on bits of paper (or tree-bark if you want to be really authentic), putting the papers in a pot and drawing one out (without looking of course). Alternatively you can spread the papers over your desk and toss a die at them. The one the die lands on is the one you use.

Fortunetelling isn’t really my thing, but I was intrigued by my reading about rhapsodomancy so I thought I’d give it a go. Writing a lot of titles or lines out seemed like work and a waste of paper, but using the die is a good idea, so I decided to adapt that. It took a few goes to make it work, so what follows isn’t entirely my first effort.

Some time ago I was given a copy of a lovely book, Poem for the Day: One edited by Nicholas Albery, which has one poem for each day of the year. It seemed a good book to use as my text – very varied poems by many poets.

To find the poem I need I have to have a randomly chosen date. Since we are in the first half of the month I decided the date used should to be in the first two weeks. So I toss a die. It lands on 6.

I don’t need another toss – I’m not going to do any adding. If I used another toss I might get a 1 or 2 and could use them with the 6 to give me 16 or 26, but I’ve already decided to rule these dates out.

So now to toss for the month. I get a 2 – February. I toss again in case I get December, but I don’t – I get a 3. Since there are no months 23 or 32, I stick with February.

Now for the text for 6th February. It is The Passionate Shepherd to his Love by Christopher Marlowe. But it has six stanzas which seem too much for divination, so I toss again and get a 6.

The verse:

The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning.
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

All this die work is just the preamble. We’re now at the tricky part, which is working out what it means.

An experienced diviner could probably draw a lot of conclusions from such a verse. My immediate reaction is that next May there will be dancing and singing near enough to me for me to observe it and maybe join in. This is such a cheerful prediction that I’m going to stop there and wait until May 2016 to see if it comes true.

If any of my readers see something different in the verse, I’d love to hear what it is.

Kinokophone, libraries of sound and new words

visualized sound

Visualisation of an elephant rumble. (Wikimedia. Authors Stoeger A, Heilmann G, Zeppelzauer M, Ganswindt A, Hensman S, Charlton B)

I came across the name Kinokophone by chance. It is a company dedicated to gathering sounds and using them artistically. They are supported by bodies like the Arts Council, and do some work with the British Library.

Apparently, they invented their name and the word kinokophonography – one of the great new words, a sort of slamming together of Japanese and Greek that rolls off the tongue (after some practice).

All over the world there are libraries of sounds and they’re working hard to preserve and save the various sound recordings – many of which are becoming unplayable. This is an important legacy to hand on to the future.

It’s sad that we can’t hear Shakespeare recite his own poems, but it’s unavoidable. We would have to hang our heads in shame if the same fate overtook today’s poets who are mostly well recorded.

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