Gorse, Furze, and Whin

A few years ago, an acquaintance emailed me in extreme frustration because he’d looked up furze, a word he encountered while reading a mystery set in Scotland, in a dictionary. The definition for furze was “whin; gorse.” When he looked up whin and gorse their entries referred him to furze. I’ve had similar and equally annoying experiences with dictionaries, and immediately understood his frustration. I promised him I’d post about all three words.

Gorse, as the AHD notes, is

Any of several spiny shrubs of the genus Ulex, especially U. europaeus, native to Europe and having fragrant yellow flowers and black pods. Also called furze, whin.

Ulex europaeus from Ayrshire, Scotland
Credit: Roger Griffith

That’s a picture of the most common species of gorse in Scotland and the UK, Ulex europaeus “Common gorse.” It grows on otherwise barren land, in sandy soil with good sun exposure; it has glossy green leaves, spines, and grows as a low shrub where not much else grows. In the spring it has bright yellow flowers. When sheep or goats eat the surface vegetation, the plant survives and puts out new shoots. The seeds are contained in hard black seed-pods, and will often survive and sprout even better after a fire. It is in fact exceedingly flammable, and may well have adapted specifically to survive sporadic fires, particularly those from lightening strikes. While Gorse is not native to North America, European Common Gorse has made its way here, probably both accidentally in seed form, and with intent, because Scots settlers from Scotland and by way of Canada brought it with them as a crop for cattle and sheep, a plant to use in dyeing fabric, and as an ornamental reminder of home.

Unfortunately, the Gorse thrived since the birds and other natural predators adapted to consume the gorse in Scotland and the U.K. didn’t come to North America  with the Gorse. Consequently, Gorse is officially listed as an invasive and nuisance plant, a noxious weed in western Washington state. In New Zealand, where Gorse has also triumphed over the native plant life, Gorse often serves to spread fires by providing fodder for the flames. Gorse is generally perceived as the most noxious invasive week in New Zealand.

Gorse and furze and whin all refer to exactly the same plant. But each synonym was probably from a different Germanic dialect; gorse and furze are gorst and fyrs in Old English, and were likely words for the same plant from different dialect of Old English.

Whin, or whinne in Middle English appears to be borrowed from a Scandinavian language, probably Old Norse, but possibly Danish. Saxon, Norse, and Danish were all spoken by Germanic invaders who settled in various parts of England; all have left their mark on English, just as much as the plant has marked the landscape.

Poet

The Greeks called him “a poet,” which name has, as the most excellent, gone through other languages. It comes of this word poiein, which is “to make”; wherein I know not whether by luck or wisdom we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him “a maker.” Which name how high and incomparable a title it is, I had rather were known by marking the scope of other sciences than by any partial allegation (Sidney Defence of Poesie).

Sidney is absolutely correct when he notes that the English word poet derives from the Greek poiein, to create. Our modern English poet comes to us via Middle English, from Old French poete, from Latin poēta, from Greek poiētēs, “maker, composer,” which derives from Greek poiein, “to create.”

Sidney is also correct about English poets in earlier eras being called “makers.” It’s a particularly common way to refer to poets in Middle Scots, as you’ll see in William Dunbar’s (1465–1520?) “Lament for the Makers.

Dubar’s poem is a litany of dead poets, “makers,” or as Dunbar’s Middle Scots would have it, makaris, all taken by Death:

He has done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
Timor Mortis conturbat me (Dunbar “Lament for the Makers,” ll. 49–52).

Englished that would be:

He has piteously devoured
The noble Chaucer, the flower of makers,
The monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
Fear of death torments me.

Timor Mortis conturbat me” is Latin for “the fear of death torments me”; Dunbar’s poem lamenting the dead makers is an example of the poetic genre known as memento mori; Dubar fears that his own death is approaching, that he will be “devoured” much as Chaucer, Lydgate (the monk of Bury) and Gower were.

Memento Mori

The phrase memento mori is usually used in the context of a literary topos, that is a commonplace, or a motif in art. The New Latin (i.e. not Classical, but late Medieval or Early Modern Latin) is derived from Latin mementō, singular imperative of meminisse, “to remember’ + Latin morī, “to die.” Memento mori is conventionally translated as “remember that you have to die,” or the even less literal “remember your death” (AHD).”

Death Comes to the Banquet Table Giovanni Martinelli (1600–1659)
Image: Wikimedia commons

Remember here has a cautionary connotation of “don’t forget.” The driving idea behind the tag (and the topos) is that all creatures die; we should thus go through life remembering that our death is inevitable. In a Christian context, the emphasis is less on fate and fatality, and more on the Christian concept of a heavenly life to come; we should thus remember our mortality, and use this life to prepare for the life to come.

As the AHD entry for memento mori notes:

n. pl. memento mori
1. A reminder of death or mortality, especially a death’s-head.
2. A reminder of human failures or errors.

there is a strong tie between the phrase memento mori, and visual representations of mortality. A death’s-head is “The human skull as a symbol of mortality or death” (AHD s. v. death’s-head).

Medieval books of hours include the Office of The Dead, a set of prayers and readings meant both to remind the living of the inevitability of death (and the necessity of a virtuous life) and prayers for the soul of the departed to shorten their stay in purgatory. The memento mori has a vast iconographic catalog of visual images associated with the motif, ranging from skeletons and skulls, to personifications of death as the Grim Reaper, to mirrors held by skeletons (sometimes reflecting the owner of the book or painting) and reminding the viewer that “you too shall die.” Tombs and gravestones feature reminders of the inevitability of death in the form of skulls and skeletons. Jewelry featuring these motifs was popular throughout the Middle ages and Renaissance. These objects are often specifically identified as a memento mori, a “reminder of death.”

Frans_van_Everbroeck (1654  – 1672) “Memento Mori”
Image: wikimedia commons

Painters in the seventeenth century portrayed elaborate banquets, with the shadow of a skeleton looking over the feast, or tables with food and drink, candles, plants or flowers, hourglasses or early timepieces (and often, books!) with a skull prominently displayed as reminder that these things are transitory; life and time are moving towards death. Eighteenth century engravers favored bipartite men and women, with one half depicted as a skeleton, as a reminder of the inevitability of death and the necessity to prepare.

Literature too is full of instances of the memento mori motif. So much so that the OED credits Shakespeare with the first use of the phrase memento mori in Henry IV (1598):

I make as good use of it as many a man doth of a death’s head, or a memento mori

Again, we see the death’s head as an example of a memento mori.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 5 scene i, the scene with Hamlet, Horatio, and the grave digger wherein Hamlet asks to whom a particular skull once belonged, is a memento mori passage of some note, and is told that it once belonged to Yorick, a jester of some note:

HAMLET
Takes the skull
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell
me one thing.
Horatio What’s that, my lord?
HAMLET Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’
the earth?
HORATIO E’en so.
HAMLET And smelt so? pah!
Puts down the skull
HORATIO E’en so, my lord.
HAMLET
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?
HORATIO
’Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.
HAMLET No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

All men die. Yorick the jester, Caesar, and Hamlet’s father the king, all have died. The way Hamlet’s rumenations about the inevitability of death are triggered by the sight of Yorick’s skull renders the skull a memento mori, though as a skull at grave-digging, it’s an obvious death’s head.

In John Donne’s “A Valediction Of My Name, In The Window” he muses on his name scratched in a window pane, and writes:

 

Or if too hard and deep
This learning be, for a scratch’d name to teach,
It as a given death’s head keep,
Lovers’ mortality to preach ;
Or think this ragged bony name to be
My ruinous anatomy (ll. 19–24).

Here Donne transforms his engraved signature to a death’s-head, an “anatomy,” in another skeletal reference, and, in later verses, as a talisman to ward off other would-be-lovers pursuing Donne’s beloved after his death. Even more contemporary poets use the memento mori topos; see Billy Collins’ “Memento Mori”:

There is no need for me to keep a skull on my desk,
to stand with one foot up on the ruins of Rome,
or wear a locket with the sliver of a saint’s bone.

Buckles, Cobblers, Grunts and Slumps

It’s blueberry season in Maine. The abundance of blueberries got me thinking about my mom’s blueberry buckle recipe. What, pray tell, is a buckle?

Buckles

Fruit buckles are very much associated in my mind with New England, but my quick check of southern recipe collections suggest that that’s not the case historically. Southern recipes for buckles feature apples and plums Almond-Plum Buckle recipe rather than blueberries Blueberry Buckle Recipe. A buckle, for the curious, is an old-fashioned style of single layer cake, typically cooked in a flat pan, round or square (rather than , and includes fruit and streusel-style crumb topping. Some recipes call for mixing the fruit into the cake batter, others have the cook spread the fruit between the batter and streusel topping, as a separate layer. The batter is very dense, and as the cake cooks, the batter sinks to the bottom, and pushes the fruit and streusel up, making them “buckle,” or give way. In other words, the “buckle” in question is derived from the verb, with the meaning of “to bend, warp, bulge, or collapse.” Etymologically speaking, buckle derives from Middle English bokel, from Old French boucle, from Latin buccula, the cheek strap of a helmet, itself derived from a diminutive of bucca, or “cheek.”

Cobblers

Cobbler, ready to bake Image Credit: Lisafern via WikiMedia

A cobbler is a Southern fruit dessert. The fruit is usually peaches, or berries; either blackberries, raspberries or cherries. Biscuit dough is dropped in spoonfuls over a mixture of fruit and syrup (made with sugar and fruit juice) or biscuit dough is rolled out and placed over fruit filling as a top layer, sealing in the juice and berries. The OED associates cobblers with the American west, and offers Bartlett’s Dictionary of 1859 as the first attestation “A sort of pie, baked in a pot lined with dough of great thickness, upon which the fruit is placed; according to the fruit, it is an apple or a peach cobbler.” The OED subsequently refers to Mark Twain’s 1880 travelography Tramp Abroad, and a “Peach cobbler, Southern style.” I confess that I have no clue about the etymology of cobbler (neither does the AHD who offers “Origin unknown”); or why a word associated with manufacturing shoes, or temporary fixes might be associated with such a delightful dessert. I note, in passing, that it’s possible that the meaning of cobbler in this context is related to the use of cobble as a verb to mean “One who mends clumsily, a clumsy workman, a mere botcher.” But I’m guessing, and rather wildly, at that.

Grunts and Slumps

A grunt is very much a New England dish. It’s a fruit dessert made by stewing fresh fruit, briefly, then putting the very hot fruit in a baking dish and dropping spoonfuls of a biscuit-dough like batter on to the very hot fruit. The steam from the fruit cooks the dough—and often, the escaping steam from the partially smothered and still cooling fruit creates a “grunting” noise. You normally finish cooking the grunt in an oven so that the topping is browned, and if possible, you sprinkle a little sugar on the top before you pop it in the oven, and the sugar and the juice and the steam and heat from the oven create a lovely caramel. Grunts are very much part of New England wood-stove cooking, so much so that growing up I noticed some women identified their cast iron dutch ovens as “grunts.” Elsewhere, for instance in Georgia and coastal Carolina, the same dessert is called a slump, because when you take the dessert off the heat, it slumps or falls.

It’s not uncommon to still have fresh blackberries and plums in Southern New Hampshire in late September, just as fall is about to burst forth in full glorious leafage. I still get all nostalgic about grunts and cobblers and buckles. It’s a good time now to freeze ripe peaches, so you can have peach cobbler Peach Cobbler Recipe | SimplyRecipes.com in February. And there’s no reason not to freeze,cherries, blueberries and blackberries, too. I’m a firm believer in blackberry grunt and plum grunt Blackberry Grunt Recipe | Alton Brown | Food Network , as well, and the late plums are still on trees in some parts of the U.S. I note that buckles, cobblers, grunts and slumps are all best served warm with a scoop of really good vanilla ice cream.

Asterisk

Asterisk is one of those words in English that began as a noun, but is often used as a verb, with the meaning “To mark with an asterisk” (AHD s.v. asterisk). An asterisk is:

n.

1. A star-shaped figure (*) used chiefly to indicate an omission, a reference to a footnote, or an unattested word, sound, or affix.
2. Mathematics A symbol used to indicate multiplication, as in 2 * 3 = 6.

Etymologically speaking, asterisk (present in Middle English) derives from Late Latin asteriscus, from Greek asteriskos, diminutive of astēr, “star.” Asterisk, Aster, and Star are all derived from the Proto Indo-European root *ster-3.

Our practice of using an asterisk to identify things as particularly important, or as a reference to mark that there’s a note or comment about an item has a Classical heritage:

The practice of using a star-shaped sign, an asterisk, began in Ptolemaic Alexandria where the great textual scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium and his student Aristarchus of Samothrace used them to mark repeated lines in the Iliad and Odyssey. Several centuries later the prolific (and self-mutilated) Christian theologian Origen began to employ asterisks in a different way, to signal the omission of certain passages in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This usage gradually spread as a sign of something missing or hidden, and hence—at the end of a complex trail that winds through classical editions, Bibles, and pornography—when you type your password on the computer, the letters and numbers often show up as a string of asterisks (The Classical Tradition. Edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis. Harvard University Press, 2013. via Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner “Glories of Classicism.” New York Review of Books. February 21, 2013). 

Coulee

If you know anyone from Eastern Montana, you likely have heard them refer to coulees. In Montana and most of the Western U.S., a coulee is “A deep gulch or ravine with sloping sides, often dry in summer” (AHD s.v. coulee). While coulee means different things in other places (a stream bed or even a bayou or canal in Louisiana and Southern Mississippi, a valley with hills on either side, or a lava flow), I want to focus on the Montana definition of coulee.

Writer Kari Lynn Dell, novelist and Montana resident defines a coulee this way:

It’s smaller than a valley, wider than a ravine, deeper and longer than a draw. In our area they have been carved by creeks into the flat plain left behind after the massive glacial sheets of ice retreated back to the mountains at the end of the last ice age. Since the word is of French origin, I assume we have the early French Canadian trappers to thank for its prevalence, given that they were the first white men to venture into this area. 

Go look at her post; she’s got pictures of culees. And subscribe to her blog Montana For Real; it’s one of my favorites. 
Etymologically coulee entered English via Canadian French coulée, from French couler “to flow”; derived from Latin  colare, “to filter,” which derived from the noun colum or “sieve.”

Welsh

The word Welsh can refer to the Celtic language of Wales, called Cymric in that language, or it can be an adjective referring to  items related to “Wales or its people, language or culture” (AHD s.v. Welsh. The etymology of Welsh is interesting. Etymologically, the word Welsh entered Modern English via the Middle English Walische, derived from Old English Wælisc, from Old English Wealh, “foreigner.” The plural form of wealh, wealas, gave us the Modern English word Wales.

There’s a certain irony that the Germanic-speaking invaders refer to the previous inhabitants of Britain, the Celtic speaking ancestors of modern Welsh, as “foreigners,” but to the English, the people “over there,” across the border in Wales, were “foreign,” if not “enemies,” and in some contexts, the word Wælisc does in fact seem to be a synonym for “enemies.”

Image courtesy Publicdomainpictures.net

As the note in the AHD entry for Wales mentions, Welsh derives from the I.E. root walh-, as does the OE word for walnut; walhhnutu. This word, is a surviving in a single c. 1050 ms. is a compound of wal + nut and refers to the nut of the common walnut tree Juglans regia Juglans regis – Plant Finder . Old English Walhhnutu became Middle English walnotte and Modern English walnut. At the literal level, wal + nut means “foreign nut,” an apropos name for a tree brought to Britain by the Romans, and native to Eastern Europe and Asian minor.

Sheepish Idioms

As we move along the paths of technology and human invention, our skill sets and our language change along with our manner of life. But because so much of language, especially idiom, is built upon metaphor, as we lose understanding of past ways of living, those metaphors die, and become complicated literary allusions.

Take, for instance “dyed-on-the-wool,” which Ngaio Marsh used in a punning title of her mystery novel, Died in the Wool. The idiom really is “dyed,” and dyed-in-the-wool means, according to the AHD, “Thoroughgoing; out-and-out: a dyed-in-the-wool populist.” You usually see the idiom used in a political context, as in “Kennedy was a dyed in the wool Democrat.” SyedDin-the-wool can be used for other fields as well; I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Macintosh fan. The idiom derives from the practice of dying wool that has been washed, combed or “carded” to remove tangles and bits of trash, but which has not ye been spun into yarn. Wool dyed in after being washed and carded but before it is spun tends to be more thoroughly and permanently colored than wool dyed after it is spun.

In an historical, etymological context, the first recorded use of dyed in the wool as a metaphor (according to the OED) was by Richard Hooker in 1597. In  Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity Hooker commented that

Children as it were in the Wooll of their infancie died with hardnesse may neuer afterwards change colour” (V. lxxii. S18).

Dyed in the wool is very much a metaphor in Hooker’s use, a sheepish metaphor to express the idea that if people are raised from childhood accustomed to austerity and temperance, then the virtues of austerity and temperance will be part of them, as if dyed in the wool. Oddly, as the OED notes, dyed-in-the-wool is now much more common in American English than in British English, though the phrase should usually be hyphenated.

The similarly sheepish idiom of a bellwether day in reference to stocks; that’ an idiom derived from the wether, or castrated ram, who leads the flock and wears a bell around his neck. The AHD defines a bellwether as “One that serves as a leader or as a leading indicator of future trends.”This too is an idiom we inherited from Britain, but there, oddly, a “bell weather day” is a bad day; bellwether seems to refer to a negative or downward trend. The OED offers, in addition to the traditional sheep-with-bell definition, the following “a leader; contemptuously: the ring-leader, the worst of the lot.’In standard American use, while bellwether refers to a leader or leading trend, the phrase is neutral. Sheep will follow a bellwether over a cliff, or into a canyon, no matter how foolish the action, so the idiom is not without natural cause. Indeed, we still use the phrase “like lambs to the slaughter, ” to refer to someone who unquestioningly follows others, no matter how life threatening and dangerous their action may be.

There are other sheepish idioms preserved as metaphoric fossils in English. We might also think of the phrase black sheep to refer to  a sheep with black or dark wool, but black sheep also can mean “One who is considered disreputable or disgraceful by his or her relatives or associates.” We count sheep, a thankless, difficult and often boring task when we wish to fall asleep. We refer to someone who is reticent, even shy, as sheepish. We also use sheepish to refer to someone who has been “Embarrassed, as by consciousness of a fault,” often in the phrase “sheepish grin.”

Easter

n.

1. A Christian feast commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus.
2. The day on which this feast is observed, the first Sunday following the full moon that occurs on or next after March 21.
3. Eastertide.

 

Rabbit on a pillar; entrance to St. Michael’s chapel
from St. Mary’s, Beverley, Yorkshire c. 1330

That seems straightforward enough. It gets a little less straightforward when we start looking at the etymology behind the word Easter.

This much we are reasonably sure of; Easter is derived from Middle English ester, itself derived from Old English ēastre. There’s a very clear Proto Indo-European root there; *aus-, “to shine.” Derivatives of *-aus included east, Easter, and Aurora, as well as the name of the Greek dawn goddess, Eos.

You will see a fair number of people stating that Easter is derived from the name of a pagan goddess named Eostre, or Ostara. Despite urgent and repeated assertions from Neo Pagans, Easter is not Celtic, nor is there a fertility goddess represented by the rabbit named Eostre, nor is she a moon goddess; the fact that the word Easter begins with the word east suggests that, if anything, a solar influence is more probable.

We don’t have solid evidence for an English deity named Eostre. All we have is a brief almost off-hand reference by the Venerable Bede (c. 672–735) in his De temporum ratione, a Latin treatise on the calendar from a Christian perspective. In chapter 15 Bede describes the native English names of the month, and cites the worship of the English goddess Hretha, during the month of Hrethmonath (literally, Heretha’s month). Bede then describes a goddess associated with the vernal equinox, and calls her Eostre (Northumbrian dialect of Old English equivalent to Éastre).

We don’t have other references to Eostre in earlyEnglish but it seems most likely that, like other Indo-European deities whose names descend from *aus-, Aurora, and Eos, Eostre is a dawn goddess, if in fact Bede is even correct in his assertion that the name of the month was also that of a goddess. Note, by the way, that all the references to an *aus– cognate deity are Germanic, Latin, or Greek; none are Celtic.

Now, it is interesting that English, unlike French or a number of other related Indo-European languages, uses Easter for a Christian feast, rather than a name derived from the Hebrew word for Passover; remember, Christ essentially substitutes the Last Supper for Passover, or Pessach. French Pâques is cognate with Hebrew Pessach, for instance.

The Language of Baseball and English Idiom

A picture of a night game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Dodger Stadium, August 13, 2011 Credit: Adam_sk

Foolish me; I had been planning for some time to welcome the Springtime return of major league baseball with a bit about the ways the language of baseball in the form of baseball idioms has crept into ordinary American English.

I’m far too late to the pitch. There’s a wikipedia article already. Even the OED got to first base before me.

There are books about the language of baseball; Ryan Gray’s The Language of Baseball: A Complete Dictionary of Slang Terms, Cliches, and Expressions From The Grand Ole Game. And there’s a book (and a website) by Paul Dickson about the signs used to signal plays used by catchers, pitchers, coaches and even players (at bat or in the field); The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime.

Nonetheless, because I love the way baseball has embedded itself so very thoroughly into American English, I’m going to talk about a handful of words and phrases. Bear in mind that while I love baseball, I’m not a player or even an expert fan; these are not in depth explorations, and there are at least fifty more idioms that while derived from baseball, are used in ordinary American English.

Off base I can’t actually prove that off base meaning “badly mistaken” derives from baseball, but I suspect it originally referred to a player who was not on base (that is the player was between or near a base, but not physically touching it), and could therefore be rendered “out” by a ball thrown by the pitcher or an outfielder. The OED does seem to agree with my hypothesis though.

Out of left field Left field, as the AHD notes, refers to

a. The third of the outfield that is to the left, looking from home plate.
b. The position played by the left fielder.

Something “out of left field” has come to mean “A position far from the center or mainstream” (AHD s.v. left field). If you’re standing at Home plate, it can be difficult to see what’s going on in the left, so players can be surprised.

Flied The Conventional past tense form of the verb to fly is flew. But in baseball, when describing the action of a fly ball that a batter hits (“A ball that is batted in a high arc, usually to the outfield”) it’s correct to use the form flied as the past tense and past participle for “To hit a fly ball” as in this bit from Vin Scully’s last broadcast for the Los Angeles Dodgers1 (emphasis mine):

Romo ready, fouled out by Rob Segedin, who flied out to right field in the seventh inning.