Friday, December 31, 2010

A thought this New Year's Eve

“This empty year is fading into a dull grey mournful darkness: so slow-footed and yet so swift and evanescent. What of the new year and the spring? I wonder.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien,
from a letter to his son, Christopher,
28 October 1944

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Word of the Day: Fart

I recently received a birthday wish that included the following charming observation: “Thou art an old fart […] but the most awesomest anglo saxon speaking one that I know.” I replied that fart was a word known to the Anglo-Saxons. In fact, like the words for many bodily parts and functions, it goes much further back than this. It turns out there are quite a few interesting things to say about this word and some of its relatives, so I decided — even at the risk of lowering our collective brows — to write a post on it. Rest assured: I’ll find ways to elevate the conversation again. (“Mr. Shakespeare, your cue in five minutes.”)

The Old English word for a fart is attested in only one form and only one place (that I know). That form is feorting — a bit surprisingly, this is a feminine noun. Yes, women fart too, though they usually won’t admit it. But if you want to look it up in any of the major Anglo-Saxon dictionaries, don’t expect to see the Modern English fart. Most bodily terminology has been glossed with euphemism, often in Latin. In the great Bosworth/Toller dictionary, feorting is glossed as crĕpĭtus ventris, which is Latin for a “chattering of the belly” — cute, eh? The Latin crĕpĭtus is an imitative word, from which we also derive the Modern English words crepitation, i.e., “a crackling (e.g., of the joints)”; and decrepit, i.e., “creaking with old age”. I did just turn forty, after all.

In John R. Clark Hall’s dictionary (even the revised edition of 1960, ed. Herbert Meritt), it’s defined with Latin pēdātio. This is actually the direct Latin cognate given in Ælfric’s glossary, but unless you’re familiar with this word, it’s not much help. It doesn’t appear in the average student dictionary of Latin, but it comes from the pēdĕre “to break wind”, a verb which can be traced back to the Indo-European root √perd “to fart”, again probably imitative of the sound. This root also gave us the Sanskrit पर्दते and Ancient Greek πέρδομαι, with the same meaning. The word also passed far and wide, as farts tend to do, into Avestan, Lithuanian, Latvian, Albanian, Russian, Welsh, etc.

Among the Germanic languages, the word was also rather widely attested too — and anyone who has experienced a particularly noxious chattering of the belly will not be surprised at its reach. Though we can only extrapolate the unattested Old English verb *feortan, we have evidence of Old High German ferzan, Old Saxon fertan, Old Norse freta, and various forms in the later medieval languages as well, e.g., Middle High German, Middle Dutch, and of course Middle English. Chaucer, it must be said, leet fle a fart rather often in his verses. (But Norman Davis omits the word from A Chaucer Glossary, tsk tsk tsk.)

There are two surprising offspring of the humble fart. The first, thanks to our friend William Shakespeare, has become an old saw, though not many realize it ever had anything to do with breaking wind. Recall the ominous lines from the close of Act III of Hamlet: “For ’tis the sport to have the engineer / Hoist with his own petard” (III.4:207–8). Poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!

A petard was a small bomb used to breach castle walls or gates. The word comes to us from the French pétard, literally a “farter”, in turn from Middle French péter “to fart”. The bomb had a long fuse — think of this image and you’re on the right track — which made a sputtering, “farting” sound as it burned down. The French word comes down from the Latin pēditum, in turn derived from the verb whose acquaintance we’ve already made above. Cognates include Italian petardo and obsolete Spanish petar.

The second surprising relative is the partridge — ironic, since one of my favorite etymologists (Eric Partridge) bears that surname. From Middle English partrich, in turn from Old French pertris, perdriz, from Latin perdix, from Green πέρδιξ, the partridge was so named because of the whirring sound of his wings. What a proud bird for such a lowly etymology! Cognates include Scottish partrick, Old Italian perdice, Spanish perdiz, Catalan perdiu, etc.

All of this from the sound of breaking wind. And since it’s Christmastime, if you’ll permit me: “And a partridge in a pear treeeeeeee … pffffftht!!” Excuse me! Okay, that was a new low for Lingwë.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

An interview with Simon Tolkien

Earlier this year, I conducted an interview with Simon Tolkien for Mythprint (it appeared in the June 2010 issue, Vol. 47, No. 6, on pp. 3–4). Simon Tolkien is the author of Final Witness, The Inheritance, and The King of Diamonds (coming in April, 2011). Of equal importance — to this audience, at least — he is the son of Christopher Tolkien and grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien.

As part of the new blog of the Mythopoeic Society, dubbed The Horn of Rohan, my interview has been made available online. In the interview, we talk about Simon’s memories of his grandparents, his feelings about The Lord of the Rings, recollections of the barn in which his father assembled The Silmarillion, his tastes in literature, and of course, his own legal and mystery fiction. You can read it by following this link.

And by the way, I should add that I really enjoyed The Inheritance. I don’t read a lot in that particular genre — I could probably enumerate my experience using no more than my ten fingers: a little Agatha Christie, the occasional Arthur Conan Doyle, but nary a Grisham, Turow, or Grafton — but this is a book I can recommend. I was particularly impressed with its sense of time and place, as well as the carefully rendered characters. Why don’t you give it a try?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Onomastics and The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Slight as it is, J.K. Rowling’s Tales of Beedle the Bard has not been the subject of very much study since its 2008 publication. Little surprise there. As a quick benchmark, Google Scholar returns a mere 50 hits for “Beedle the Bard” + Rowling, as compared to nearly 9,000 for “Harry Potter” + Rowling. (Why add Rowling to the search query? To filter out unrelated articles written by real Harry Potters!)

But I’ve just read this charming little book again, and I thought I would share some thoughts on a handful of its proper names. There are not many of these (about twenty), and several of them may also be found in the Harry Potter novels, but a few of them are really interesting. As with all Rowling’s proper names, they show a lot of imagination and a real dexterity with words and puns.

The most obvious place to begin is with the “author” of the collection, Beedle himself. In an intriguing little work called Exploring Beedle the Bard: Unauthorized, Pithy, Tale-by-Tale Perspectives, Graeme Davis posits that the name “may perhaps echo the name Bede, the great Northumbrian writer and historian who preserved many stories relating to the earliest history of the English people”; or, he says, perhaps it is the genuine Yorkshire surname, Beedle [1]. Rowling tells readers that Beedle the Bard was indeed from that part of England.

These are plausible, but I think there’s another possibility as well. A beadle is a minor parish official — perhaps the most famous example of which is Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Many of Rowling’s names remind readers of Dickens. Mr. Bumble is also in charge of the orphanage in that novel. Rowling has an orphanage in the Harry Potter series as well — though I’m not trying to compare Oliver Twist with Tom Riddle!

The word beadle really just means a “proclaimer”, and comes to us from the Middle English bedel, from Old French bedel “a herald”, in turn from Vulgar Latin bedellus, and still earlier, borrowed from a Germanic root (cp. Old High German biotan “to proclaim”). A bard is a kind of proclaimer as well. The word is Celtic but probably akin to Sanskrit bhásh “to speak” (cp. OE bannan “to proclaim, summon”). The word fame is also a descendent of the same root. And Beedle is a justifiably famous bard, isn’t he?

A few of the new names are very straightforward. For example, we learn about Brutus Malfoy. This is Latin brutus “stupid”, now connoting brutality + French mal foi “bad faith”. There are also Lisette de Lapin, an animagus capable of transforming into a rabbit, and the great wizarding philosopher, Bertrand de Pensées-Profondes — whose apt surnames are French for “rabbit” and “profound thoughts”, respectively. Lisette and Bertrand are not particularly apt in their etymologies, but they are apt in terms of their sound. Lisette alliterates with lapin, and Bertrand rhymes, more or less, with profondes. In addition, there is a famous Muggle philosopher with the same given name, Bertrand Russell.

In “The Fountain of Fair Fortune”, we meet three witches named Asha, Altheda, and Amata. These three are respectively sick, destitute, and lovelorn, and seek to have their wishes granted by the titular Fountain. Asha is a genuine Sanskrit name meaning “wish, desire, hope” — apt indeed. Altheda is a genuine name as well, from Greek. It’s sometimes said to be a variant on the name Althea, but giving Rowling the benefit of a definite intention, I think the etymology might be αλήτης “a wanderer, vagrant, vagabond, beggar”. The third, Amata, is the clearest of the three, from the Latin amata “beloved”. All three seem quite apt and resonate nicely with one another. Assuming it was all fully intentional, it’s also wonderful to see Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin — the three pillars of the dead languages — equally represented.

Other names appearing in The Tales of Beedle the Bard: Beatrix Bloxam, Herbert Beery, Silvanus Kettleburn, Hector Dagworth-Granger, Adalbert Waffling, Emeric the Evil, Egbert, Godelot, Barnabas Deverill, Loxias — and a few others already familiar from the seven-volume series. Some of these have pretty clear meanings. I could take a closer look at some of these if there is sufficient interest; or tackle them yourselves and post your thoughts in the comments.

[1] Davis, Graeme. Exploring Beedle the Bard: Unauthorized, Pithy, Tale-by-Tale Perspectives. Nimble Books: 2009, p. 5.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Another review of Truths Breathed Through Silver

Quite by accident, I learned of another review of the collection, Truths Breathed Through Silver: The Inklings’ Moral and Mythopoeic Legacy, ed. Jonathan Himes (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). For a refresher on this book, refer back to this post; for highlights from other reviews, this post.

This latest review appeared in The C.S. Lewis Chronicle, the journal of The Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. It’s a very short review (not more than 300 words), and it wastes roughly half of these in quibbling over the aptness of the book’s subtitle. But lest I seem ungrateful, I must point out that the review is actually quite positive, once it gets around to dealing with the actual contents of the collection. Sadly, by this time, the reviewer has only a few sentences left, but here’s an excerpt:
[Two paragraphs summarizing the mythopoeic predilections of the Inklings …]
.....That is what I thought this book would be about. But it isn’t. It is fascinating and welcome, but it is not about the Inklings’ moral and mythopoeic legacy. It is an exhilarating, learned ragbag of essays on all sorts of things: Lewis on verbicide, Tolkien’s treatment of the Fall [*], a history of libraries in Tolkien’s Middle Earth [sic], mathematics in the spirituality of George MacDonald, and more. Swashbuckling stuff, all of it, and some of it […] timely and important. But it is an opportunity missed. There is a significant book to be written on the myth-making of the Inklings, qua Inklings. [Charles Foster. The C.S. Lewis Chronicle, Vol. 6, No. 2 (April 2009): 40.]
I would differ with the plain assertion that the collection “is not about the Inklings’ moral and mythopoeic legacy”; still more, that it is “an opportunity missed”. It’s perfectly fair for a reviewer to point out oversights or errors in a collection, or to single out weaker contributions thereto, but to spend the bulk of a very short review voicing chagrin that this book is not the book the reviewer thought it would be … Why not spend those words saying something about what that book actually is? Such ruminations as these, and the call for “a significant book [yet] to be written”, might be okay in a review of a couple thousand words — they are probably not appropriate in a review of only a couple hundred.

At least I was included in the short capsule summary [marked above with an asterisk], and I certainly can’t complain about being called “swashbuckling” and “exhilarating”, even if indirectly — “learned ragbag” is a bit more left-handed, but I’ll take that too. :)