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.

Dray

A dray or drey is a squirrel’s nest. Dray is also sometimes applied to a nest of squirrels, or a litter of squirrels.

The OED s.v. dray offers “A squirrel’s nest” with the following in context citations:

1607   E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 497   They..make their nestes, like the draies of squirrels.
1627   M. Drayton Quest of Cynthia in Battaile Agincourt 141   The nimble Squirrell..Her mossy Dray that makes.

The etymology of dray isn’t clear; it’s generally associated with the dray that means a sled or cart that lacks wheels, and is thus dragged. That dray derives from Old English dragan to draw; the OED suggests “compare Old English dræge drag-net, also Swedish drög sledge, dray, (Old Norse draga, plural drögur timber trailed along the ground)” (s.v.dray).

I suspect, though I can’t prove it, that dray for a squirrel’s nest also derives from OE dragan meaning to draw or drag, and refers to the way squirrels create the dray, by dragging leaves and brush into a nest in the fork of a tree.  This is typically the way the North American Eastern Gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) builds its nests.

Haggis

If you mention to anyone, at all, that you’re going to visit Scotland, you’re bound to be warned about Scotland’s national dish; haggis. Haggis is, according to the AHD “A Scottish dish consisting of a mixture of the minced heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal, and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal.” The closest thing I can compare with haggis to in terms of standard American dishes is stuffing, made with giblets.

People tend to think of haggis around the 25th of January, the date reserved to celebrate the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns. All over the world Scots are celebrating Burns Night with a meal that includes toasts to Burns, his poetry, a ceremonial presentation of the haggis, and naturally, a reading of Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis.”

Haggis was not always thought of as a Scottish dish; indeed it was quite popular in the Middle Ages as this English haggis recipe from c. 1430 implies.

Etymologically, the ancestry of haggis is French; The Random House Dictionary, unlike the OED or AHD, properly attributes English haggis to Anglo-Norman French, via late Middle English (c. 1375–1425) hageys, from Anglo-Norman French *hageis, the equivalent of the verb hag-, the root of haguer, to chop, hash. They then follow haguer back to Middle Dutch hacken “to hack,” with the addition of the -eis noun suffix frequently used for cookery terms. Language blogger Language Hat beat Random House to the chase to point out in this entry that there are several clear cognates in Anglo-Norman French.

Should you be so inclined, you can make your own haggis following Alton Brown’s recipe. Haggis is often served with neeps and tatties, or turnips and potatoes, as in the image above. Alternatively, the less intrepid can order their haggis in a can here.

Ye Olde Shoppe

When I was nine, we moved to Keene, New Hampshire. Right smack dab in the middle of Main Street in Keene in the 1970s was Ye Goodie Shoppe, purveyors of fine hand-made candies. They are, to this day, the only place I’ve ever known to make Dark Chocolate Cashew Turtles. (They also make really good Milk Chocolate Turtles). Ye Goodie Shop opened in 1931, and is still going strong (though no longer on Main St.).

The use of “ye” and “shoppe” in the name Ye Goodie Shoppe are deliberate attempts to present a brand that is old fashioned, and even quaint. Finding a store that used ye, olde and shoppe is a trifecta of sorts. However charming it is, the usage is not at all historically accurate. And if you really think about it, ye in particular doesn’t actually make sense. Ye as written in the customary shop title is actually the older form of “you,” not “the.” So, technically, “Ye Goodie Shoppe” reads as “You Goody Shop,” though we naturally actually parse the ye as “the” and not “you.”

Ye in this context is actually a linguistic fossil. In the middle ages, or roughly between 1200 and the first half of the seventeenth century, the word the was often written using a character called a thorn. The thorn is derived from Old English/Anglo-Saxon runes. The thorn character (þ) represents a voiced th- sound, as in the in Old and Middle English, and was written thus: þe.

Cover of Type: The Secret of History of LettersPrinting in England arrived by way of the Continent, which meant that the type was designed by and for people speaking languages that were not English; that meant that the type didn’t include a þ character. So the printers substituted an upper-case Y for the þ character. This wasn’t a big deal as the upper-case Y looked rather like one ms. variant of a þ. The Y was pronounced as if it were a th-sound, thus, we have, hundreds of years later, Ye being read as the, and even, Yt as that. You can read all about this, and much more, in Simon Loxley’s Type: The Secret History Of Print. But remember that Ye, the second-person plural pronoun (from Old English ge is altogether different.

Halloween

And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years
We pay a tiend to hell;
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.
But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday;
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.

In 609 Pope Boniface IV pronounced November 1 All Saints’ Day. It was a day to commemorate all the saints of the church. In 837 Pope Gregory IV formally ordered the observance of All Saints’ Day.

All Saints n.
November 1, the day on which a Christian feast honoring all the saints is observed. Also called Allhallows (AHD).

In Medieval England the day was known as Allhallows, or All Hallows’ Day; the evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. Hallow is a verb meaning:

1. to make holy; sanctify; consecrate.
2. to honor as holy; consider sacred; venerate: to hallow a battlefield.

Hallow is fairly early and cognate with holy; it’s derived from Old English hālgian, derived from Old English hālig or “holy,” and cognate with German heiligen and Old Norse helga (AHD).

The relationship between Halloween and the Celtic harvest feast of Samain/Samhain isn’t clear; it’s not unreasonable to assume that one of the reasons Pope Gregory specifically sanctioned the November first date is that there was a Pagan feast day with precedence, and one associated with the dead, and the Otherworld of the Sídhe, or the fairies to English speakers. We see this in the ballad of “Tam Lin,” in which the mortal Tam Lin is taken by the Queen of Fairies to dwell with her. He fears he is to be the sacrifice, the teind or tax to hell, unless his mortal lover Janet can save him on Halloween. There are many versions of the ballad of Tam Lin; my favorite is probably from the album Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention, featuring the amazing vocals of Sandy Denny.


Cover of Elizabeth Pope's Perilous Gard

There are several novelizations of “Tam Lin” as well multiple musical versions. The first one I read, and still one of my very favorite’s is Elizabeth Pope’s Perilous Gard. It’s a YA set in Elizabethan England. The heroine is one of Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, removed from Hatfield “for her own good,” and placed in the guardian ship of a minor noble in Derby, near the location of the Blue John fluorspar mine in the caverns at Treak Cliff near Castleton in the Derbyshire hills. Pope’s novel is not a retelling of the ballad, but the ballad is a thematic touchstone for the novel, one that the characters refer to.

Cover of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin Pamela Dean‘s Tam Lin is set in a small liberal arts college, with Janet an incoming freshman. It too is a fabulous book, with a lovely and very different take on Tam Lin. Dean’s Tam Lin is rich with literary allusions that are a joy if you recognize them but that aren’t intrusive.The ballad is a source, and a touchstone for Dean’s novel, but again, this is not a mere retelling. Dean’s Tam Lin is also a super female bildungsroman, or coming of age story, and the heroine Janet has a believable voice.

Sóþlíce we gesáwon hys steorran on east-daéle

BL_cotton_Nero_DIV_f27r_lindisfarne1. Eornustlice ðá se Haélend ácenned wæs on Iudeiscre Bethleem, on ðæs cyninges dagum Herodes, ðá comon ða tungol-wítegen fram east-dæle to Hierusalem,

2. And cwaédon, Hwær ys se, Iudea cyning ðe ácenned ys?
sóþlíce we gesáwon hys steorran on east-daéle, and we comon us him to ge-eadmédenne.

3. Ðá Herodes ðæt gehýrde ðá wearþ he gedréfed, and eal Hierosolim-waru mid him.

4. And ðá gegaderode Herodes ealle ealdras ðæra sacerda, and folces wríteras, and áxode, hwær Crist ácenned waére.

5. Ðá saédon hí him, On Iudeiscere Bethlem; wítodlíce ðus ys áwriten þurh ðone wítegan,

6. And ðú, Bethleem, Iudea land, wítodlíce ne eart ðú læstþ on Iuda ealdrum; of ðé forþ-gaéþ se here-toga, se ðe recþ mín folc Israhel.

7. Herodes ðá clypode on sunder-spraéce ða tungel-wítegan, and befran hí georne hwænne se steorra him æteowde.

8. And he ásende hí to Bethlem, and ðs cwæþ, Faraþ, and áxiaþ geornlíce be ðam cílde, and ðonne ge hyt gemétaþ, cýdaþ eft me, ðæt ic cume and me to him gebidde.

9. Ðá hí ðæt gebod gehýrdon, ðá férdon hí. And
sóþlíce! se steorra, ðe hí on east-daéle gesáwon, him befóran férde, oð he stód ofer, ðær ðæt cíld wæs.

10. Sóþlíce ðá, ða tungel-wítegan ðone steorran gesáwon,
[hig] fægenodon swýðe myclum gefean.

11. And ganggende into ðam húse, hí gemétton ðæt cíld mid
Marian, hys méder; and hi áþénedon hí, and hí to him gebaédon. And hí untýndon hyra gold-hordas, and him lác
brohton, ðæt wæs gold, and récela, and myrre.

The Christmas story from Matthew 2, c. 995, taken from Joseph
Bosworth, The Gothic and Anglo-Saxon Gospels in parallel columns
with the versions of Wycliffe and Tyndale
(London: John Russell
Smith, 1865), p. 6.

Posted to the Medtextl list by Jim Marchand, Dec. 20, 2004. Professor Marchand observes: “Bosworth is positive this is translated from the Vetus Latina and not the Vulgate. Note the occasional
disambiguation, e.g. Hierosolim-waru “Jerusalemites” for Hierusalem.”

Neal Stephenson and Beowulf

Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite authors, was interviewed by Slashdot. Stephenson is best known for his
SF, especially for Snowcrash and The
Diamond Age
. His recent work, including a mammoth trilogyThe
Baroque Cycle
, has brought him to the attention of people who might not ordinarily read SF. Stephenson has also written In the Beginning was the Command Line, a very readable treatise on the nature of computer interfaces.

In the Slashdot interview, Stephenson draws a distinction between two types of modern writers and, in an extended analogy, compares them with Dante, who had wealthy aristocratic patrons, and to the Beowulf poet.

Regarding the Beowulf poet Stephenson says:

But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of
legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition—which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

I take Stephenson’s point about the difference between modern “commercially successful” fiction writers (Beowulf writers like Stephenson) and the Dante-like “literary fiction” writers who do something else to earn a living. But I think his underlying model is wrong—and Stephenson is definitely wrong about Beowulf.

The scop who first created the work in something like the form we have today was a professional poet. He composed for pay, in the form of beer, gold, horses, and a place by the fire. A lot of what he wrote would have been the kind of oral formulaic stuff that only the subject of the praise liked to hear; typical praise poems meant to honor a king or lord, like Widsith refers to. The
scribe who created British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.15 (the only Beowulf manuscript) was also a professional, though likely his
profession was that of a monastic scribe, and he copied an earlier manuscript, one we no longer have. The basic plot of Beowulf and his fights with Grendel, Grendel’s mom, and a dragon—sure, that’s the stuff of oral legend, but Beowulf is a lot more than that. In fact Beowulf was a lot more than that at least from the first time it was written down. Beowulf is a highly self conscious work for all its traditional memes and formulae.

Even if we ignore what we know of scribal practice and the function of the scop, and the transmission of tales oral and textual, and just look at Beowulf itself, Beowulf is a thematically coherent and carefully structured work, though it sometimes seems to have more in common with the modern anthology than the epic. Beowulf is not something “created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire” for a number of reasons—among them the fact that the Frisians are the villains of the piece, and, that while the poem features Denmark and parts of the Netherlands, it was definitely composed for an Anglo-Saxon (English) audience.

I’d also take exception to Stephenson’s statement that “there was no grand purpose behind its creation,” since I suspect that there was, given the thematic constants. The poet is making a point about the nature of life and the idiocies of feuds. I should also probably point out that as much as I personally like Beowulf, we have no proof (other than the fact that someone wrote it down at least twice, a time consuming and expensive practice not engaged in lightly), that the poem was similarly valued by the Anglo-Saxons. We don’t really know what value the poem had to the scribe who first copied it, or the scop who created it. It may have been seen as arty, rather than “a good read,” though the two are not mutually incompatible—as Stephenson’s own work demonstrates. We only have one very damaged manuscript of Beowulf.

Stephenson’s analogy really doesn’t work if you think about it closely because it’s based on a flawed model. If you look at the poets who had patrons, they tended to have other sources of income. Chaucer was the Customs Inspector (and likely worked in various other secret capacities for the crown), yet had to send begging poems for payment. Gower was a wealthy property owner, trained in the law courts, with close ties to court. Lydgate was a monk at Bury St Edmunds. Spenser was a civil servant, and was given the paltry sum of 100 pounds for Fairy
Queen
, only after requesting the
promised payment a second time. Shakespeare, who would seem to have had patrons royal and monied, was primarily a business man; he was a part owner of the theater his plays were performed in, and a litigious landowner. The first professional writer I can think of was Christine de Pizan, who supported herself and her son by her writing after the death of her husband. In other words, Stephenson needs to look towards post-printing-press writers for his models—I’d suggest Dickens and Ruskin, perhaps. And I’d like to point out that the canon changes with time (and The Norton Anthology) so it’s likely that Stephenson will be in the 2050 edition, just as Dickens has been in all of them.

Medieval Unicode and Word Processing

I’ve been using Mellel for about a month now for the dreaded dissertation. Mellel is a different kind of word processor; the theoretical model seems to be of text in “streams” rather than in an endless scrolling page. So far Mellel has been quite easy to use, and has super support for scholarly writing and Unicode, including yoghs, thorns, and even medieval Irish and Welsh. I’ve yet to see if Mellel supports the very specific dissertation layout requirements, particularly in terms of footnotes and headers. Mellel also supports Bookends a bibliographic database that “hooks” into various word processors. I’m not very interested in the bibliography/footnote generation features of Bookends, but I’m trying it out as a bibliographic database.

Meanwhile, Nisus Writer Express promises to have footnote and endnote support in its next major update. Nisus Writer Express has a nifty language palette, which makes using multiple languages in one document dead easy, and I quite like the interface (one of the best Cocoa implementations of Apple’s HIG I’ve seen). But much as I like Nisus Writer Express, it strikes me as more appropriate for non-academic writing, as least thus far.

More on the Yogh

You’d be amazed at how hard it is to find information about the yogh. First, I’ve managed to learn that Unicode 4.0 Latin Extended B does indeed have both an upper and a lower case yogh, a yogh is that not an ezh. Take a look, if your browser supports Unicode 4.0 characters: an uppercase yogh Ȝ or U+021C and a lower case yogh ȝ or U+021D. And there are even Mac OS X fonts that support yogh as part of the Unicode character set (I particularly like Junicode). That’s the good news.

The problem is that the only word processor (versus text editor) for Mac OS X that supports the complete Unicode character set, and by “supports” I mean I can use Insert from the Character Palette, or hex encode the character, is Nisus Writer Express. Microsoft Word X does not, since the character is a Unicode character; neither MarinerWrite nor AppleWorks 6.x support Unicode only characters. The problem with Nisus Writer Express is that it doesn’t support footnotes, and the more esoteric formatting dissertations require. Mellel looks promising though, and I have hopes for true Unicode support in Microsoft Word 11. My ultimate plan is to create a custom keyboard layout, so I can easily access the characters I need. But I’m still going to check out LaTex.

Another Sutton-Hoo?

Archaeologists in Prittlewell, Southend, Essex, England have found a seventh century Anglo-Saxon royal tomb, complete with grave goods. The burial is being compared to the 1939 Sutton Hoo finds, though that included a ship as well as the king and grave-goods, so the comparison seems a bit excessive. You can see pictures of the grave-goods here, including gold and glass ware. All that remains are the grave-goods, which makes identification a bit difficult, but it’s still quite a find.