Saturday, December 16, 2017


Occasionally scraps of great poems pop into my head, seemingly at random: "Lhude sing cuccu," for instance, or "Whan that Aprille with his shores soote/The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote," or, lately, "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?"

Nothing wonderful about that, except for how much I enjoy the rags and tatters left to me. These are some of the most famous lines in English and French literature.

And when I investigated the Villon line, "Mais où sont . . . ," I discovered that I would have heard it most recently when the dowager countess quotes this line to Mary, in French, during Downton Abbey's 2015 Christmas Special and series finale. She is consoling Mary about her lost love, and remembering a great lost love from her own past.

"Hmm," I thought, our word "snows" doesn't seem to have much in common with "neiges" or other Romance language words for snows, "nevi" (Italian), "nieve" (Spanish), "neves" (Portuguese). So, I wondered, are the words "snows" and "neiges" related or not?

Happens they are, and the link is hinted at in the German word for "snow," or "schnee."

According to the Wikipedia entry for snow, the word is from "Middle English snow, snaw, from Old English snāw (“snow”)" and is "cognate with Scots shaw ('snow'), West Frisian sine ('snow'), Dutch sneeuw ('snow')," and so on.

What can I say? Sometimes we word nerds just get to go all out.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Richard II and the First Angel Roof

Westminster Hall is the oldest surviving building of Westminster Palace. Once used for feasts, coronations, and, ironically, the deposition of King Richard II, it is now the meeting place of the British Parliament. The palace is in central London, on the north bank of the Thames River.

If you've visited Westminster Hall, you've gazed up at the beautiful late-Gothic ceiling that looks a little bit like heaven, the first angel roof. In 1397, master carpenter Hugh Herland (ca. 1330-1411), working in oak, designed this angel roof for Richard II as part of a remodeling project.

The purpose of the remodeling was twofold. First, replace the original closed roof trusses with open trusses, making the space look bigger without changing to its volume. The ceiling spans more than 68 feet in all, but is now open in the center for over 25 ft of the span, from the end of one hammer beam to its opposite.

Second, populate this new heaven with angels in honor of Richard II (1367-1400). Carved wooden angel sculptures decorate the hammer beams and appear to be hovering between heaven and earth.

Richard II used the iconography of the angel to help support his ideas about the divine right of kings, a fact to which Shakespeare alludes in his play Richard II. In Act 3, Scene 2, the king says,

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press'd
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

In 1377, during his coronation procession from the Tower of London to Westminster Hall in 1377, Richard accepted his crown from a mechanical angel (Richard II, The Art of Kingship, ed. by Anthony Goodman and James Gillespie, London: Clarenden Books, 1999).

In 1392, at the procession marking his reconciliation with the City of London, Richard again received his crown from a mechanical angel, as an eyewitness reports: “At his entry into Cheapside ... came two angels down from a cloud, the one bearing a crown for the king...and the other another crown, which was presented to the queen . . . ."

Ironically, on September 30, 1399, Richard laid aside his crown in Westminster Hall in favor of the upstart, Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV.

Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster, London as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann's ''Microcosm of London'' (1808-11).

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Style Sheet Revisited

Writing, editing, and proofreading are as much a part of me as my fingernails and toenails. I write, edit, and proof, as part of the way my mind works. I can hardly help myself.

You would think, then, that, on beginning a blog, especially one about words, I would have started a style sheet first thing: just a few notes on how I handle things that come up all the time. Pretty much all publishing houses and institutions keep them to maintain consistency from one writer to the next.

For instance, I use and firmly believe in the serial comma , because the reader--final arbiter of clarity--never has to stop and think about meaning. In this obviously English example from the Guardian Style Guide (cited in the Wikipedia entry on the comma), "he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea," the reader is not tripped up wondering whether he ate toast and marmalade or whether he actually ate toast and, separately, swallowed a spoonful of marmalade as if to disguise the taste of a bitter pill.

However, if you had assumed that I started a style sheet as a matter of course, you would have been overestimating me. About twenty-five posts in, I started keeping some notes on the back of a #10 envelope, which became a bookmark for a while and then drifted off into the stacks of printouts, bills, to-do lists, and other papers at my house.

Now, some 82 posts in, I bemoan my lack of methodical approach and think, every once in a while, that I have to go back and reread every post and come up with that style sheet, just for my own sanity. I can never remember whether I italicize words as words or put quotation marks around them; how I cite a book or article I am using heavily; or any of the other small matters that niggle at a writer's brain.

My father's mind worked much like mine does, and, from his position as a college professor of sociology, he corrected his students' papers as if he were an English teacher. Once, as a kid, I asked him why the sign in a shop window had a misspelling on it. Not realizing that many people do not have his and my gift (or curse) for language, his answer was: "That's so you'll go inside the shop and point out the misspelling."

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Sword in the Stone and Excalibur

The Matter of Britain, the body of medieval literature about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, is vast, and scholars spend their whole lives studying it. I am no expert; anything but. I am just a student of literature who loves a good story. Even better, a collection of stories that come together in a complex and imaginative way.

Sir Thomas Malory published the Morte d'Arthur in 1485. This book combines all the threads of the story that came before and becomes the source for our modern-day versions, including Howard Pyle's Story of King Arthur and his Knights (1903), T. H. White's Sword in the Stone (1938), and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon (1983).

My question is, when did the sword in the stone come into the story? And is the sword in the stone Excalibur?

The sword Excalibur, or Caledfwlch in the original Welsh, is part of the earliest Welsh legends about King Arthur. Excalibur is a compound of two Welsh words, meaning hard and breach or cleft. By the time Malory publishes, he says that Excalibur means "cut steel," a nice take on the original etymology.

From the Old French prose cycle of Arthurian literature, the Lancelot-Grail (dating from 1210 to 1230 or so), Malory gets the element of the Lady of the Lake, who hands Excalibur to King Arthur. (The Lancelot-Grail material adds other elements we consider crucial as well, including Lancelot's adulterous love affair with Guinevere and his quest for the Holy Grail.)

And from Robert de Boron's Prose Merlin, published around 1450, Malory gets the sword in the stone and the gist of its inscription, "Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England." De Boron states that the sword in the stone is not Excaliber.

In the de Boron work, the fifteen-year-old Arthur, heir to the late king Uther Pendragon but in disguise as the foster son of a nobleman, pulls the sword as a stand-in for the blade his foster brother Sir Kay has left at home. And, because he is a generous boy and humble to a fault, he lets Sir Kay take credit for the deed. Sir Kay's father calls him on the lie and Sir Kay has the opportunity to confess his sin, repent, and return to God's grace.

In later tellings, and maybe because Malory includes the sword in the stone and Excalibur without reconciling the two, as it were, the swords sometimes become conflated.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Saxons

Ptolemy (ca. 100-ca. 170 CE) was a Greco-Egyption citizen of the Roman Empire who lived and died in Alexandria. One of his most influential works was the Geographia, published, we think, around 150 CE. The book was written in Greek, lost during the Dark Ages, and translated into Arabic in the 9th century and Latin in 1406.

Just to show you how influential Ptolemy's book was, let me mention in passing that Christopher Columbus was using revisions of Ptolemy's maps when he sailed to the New World, which he thought was India.

At any rate, the first mention we have of the group of Germanic tribes called "Saxons"--in Latin, saxones--is in Ptolemy. He places them as a group of Germanic tribes living near the North Sea coast of what is now Germany.

People who study etymology in depth surmise that the Saxons' name came from the Old English word for the kind of knife the Saxons used, the seax. The seax typically has a long, single-edged blade with a tang forged on the centerline of the blade and then enclosed in a handle of wood or horn.  Its name is thought to come from a Common Germanic root, *sah, *sag,"to cut."

And there is more!

The disparaging Scottish Gaelic word "sassenach," by which pet name Jamie often teasingly calls his beloved Claire, in the Outlander series of books and now TV shows, means "outsider," literally Saxon or English.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Shield of Achilles--Again!

Many artists have created their own image of the shield of Achilles so that we can see it the way Homer did and understand its meaning in the Iliad. We are also to understand, I think, that the shield belongs with us now as much as it did twenty-seven-hundred and some years ago.

W. H. Auden, in his poem "Shield of Achilles," gives us a glimpse of the armor of an immortal Achaean hero going to his destiny and compares him with our latter-day anti-heroes. (On this theme, I highly recommend the graphic novel, Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. New York: Warner Books, 1987.)

Cy Twombly, in his painting Shield of Achilles, shows us the passion that drove Achilles to absent himself from the fight as well as the resolution that led him to return. Now he can take up the battle and triumph over Hector.

And my friend Todd, reference librarian, artist, and Bronze-Age reenactor, will soon present us with a
 a bronze replica of the shield as Homer describes it in Richmond Lattimore's translation of the Iliad of Homer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). He has created a sketch similar to the diagram Malcolm  M. Willcock gives in A Companion to the Iliad (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1976) and has drawn the figures that will populate each round of the shield.  He plans to incise the figures in the bronze.
Diagram of the shield of Achilles as shown in Malcolm M. Willcock's work.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Pride and Prejudice

So one of my favorite examples of ekphrasis is the shield-of-Achilles passage in the Iliad. By the way, I didn't tell you in the last post, but "ekphrasis," from the ancient Greek, means to call out or draw attention to.

My other favorite example of ekphrasis is in Chapter 43 of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Darcy's miniature, his portrait, his gallery, his housekeeper and his sister, his home, his pond, his estate, indeed, the whole of Pemberley, show Darcy's excellent character. Entirely in his absence, his handsome, moderate, reasonable self is revealed. In the negative, as it were.

But then, in a moment of stunning drama, and to Elizabeth's great confusion, he appears unexpectedly from the outer edge of the estate. And he turns out to be as charming as his world, Pemberley, has suggested.

Elizabeth's visit to Pemberley is a turning point in the story. Elizabeth thinks with longing, in support of the satirical theme of the novel to marry well, "And of this place . . . I might have been mistress!" Elizabeth's visit is also in support of the deeper theme, of finding balance in marriage and in life, which in this case will consist in finding an excellent husband for the heroine, who by now has become our Elizabeth, and an excellent wife for Darcy.