This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Tuesday 31 March 2020

Thing Not To Do Today: slouch.

(This word rhymes with ouch!)

To slouch along is to walk in a slow, aimless, uneven and sulky sort of a way: to slouch in a chair involves prolonged drooping.

To be no slouch is to be very good at something, as in she's no slouch at tennis. You can't, however, be a slouch at tennis - at least, you can't use that expression and have anyone think you can speak English.

If you're lazy, as in slouching around in your pyjamas all day. you're a slouch.

I know myself that to slouch is a great temptation, especially when stuck at home with not quite enough to do. Looking at the sky helps lift the posture and the spirits. 

The best tip of all, though is always to try to arrive at places nipples first.

Fijian Quarter Guard. Photo by Peter Reft

Just trying to do that is really rather cheering...

...even to those of us without actual nipples.

File:Indian runner ducks.JPG
photo by Alan Rockefeller

Thing Not To Do Today: slouch. No one knows where this word came from, but it arrived in English in the 1500s, when it meant lazy. The Old Norse slokr meant lazy fellow. 

Monday 30 March 2020

Spot the Frippet: air guitar.

Many many of us are confined to our houses and apartments at the moment, so spotting things isn't easy. 

Luckily, though, every dwelling place, however small, contains at least one air guitar.

It's probably propped up in a corner of the bedroom.

My air guitar is a Fender Deluxe P-Bass Special:

But you, of course, may prefer to play lead rather than bass.

Anyway, here's a video to give you the basic idea:

Have fun!

Spot the Frippet: air guitar. The word air comes via French and Latin from the Greek word aēr, which means the lower atmosphere. The word guitar comes via Spanish and Arabic from the Greek kithara, which is a sort of posh harp:

File:Woman kithara CdM 581.jpg
photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen 

Sunday 29 March 2020

Sunday Rest: park. Word Not To Use Today.

Crazy times, these, when even a walk in the park isn't a walk in the park!

Still, park is an odd word, now I come to think about it. It has rather an aggressive sound, like the noise a goose might make if one of its flock did something disgusting on top of a particularly juicy clump of grass he was looking forward to nibbling after his afternoon nap.

File:Angry Goose (2622447410).jpg
photo by Mike Haller

On the other hand, like the times, I may just be going crazy.

Ah well.

Word Not To Use Today: park. This word comes from French, where it is parc, from the Latin parricus, enclosure. The word's relatives (fifth cousin and half-mother-in-law, respectively) include the words paddock and pen (as in animals).

Saturday 28 March 2020

Saturday Rave: A Light Exists In Spring by Emily Dickinson

Nature and Science seem to be engaged in a fight at the moment. It's sometimes tempting to think they always are.

Here's a new slant that throws that idea, among others, up in the air, catches it elegantly, and presents it anew for our contemplation.

A Light exists in Spring
Not present in the Year
At any other period -
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.

It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay -

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

File:Ernest Lawson - Spring - Google Art Project.jpg
Painting by Ernest Lawson 1873 - 1939

Word To Use Today: March. This month is named after Mars, the Roman God of War and guardian of agriculture.

Friday 27 March 2020

Word To Use Today: tillicum.

We all need tillicums at the moment. Well, we always need them, but now particularly.

We all need to be ourselves good tillicums, too.

Are you a good tillicum?

Not sure?

Tillicum is a word of the Canadian and United States of America Pacific North West. It means friend.

Strangely, we're in a time when we don't want close friends, so my aim is to be a good, cheery, but distant tillicum for the duration of this horrible blight.

Stay well, everyone, and much love.

Word To Use Today: tillicum. This word is Chinook Jargon (it's an old trade language) and comes from the  Chinese tixam, which means kin, especially as distinguished from chiefs.

Thursday 26 March 2020

Togetherness: a rant.

I am grateful to the member of Her Majesty's Opposition who told us that coronavirus was a means of getting us all to come together; and also to the member of the Government who told us that Britain's prisons were now in lock-down.

Quite frankly, we needed the laugh.

Word To Use Today: together. This word was togædere in Old English, where it had the sense of being all in one place. Way back, the word is connected with the words gather and good.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Nuts and Bolts: miscue analysis.

Can you read?

Well, there's a question with only one answer: isn't it?

Well, no, actually. I mean, just think how often you read something and imagine it says something else. The other day I was reading about the word parapet and I thought the dictionary said that parapets were erected in military situations by making a pile of earth or handbags.

It's a lovely image, but sadly it actually said sandbags.

Children misread things all the time while they're still inexperienced at working out what all the squiggles mean. I'll always remember a nephew reading out a joke involving a politician called the Prime Monster.

Well, out of the mouths of babes...

Anyway, some time ago Ken Goodman, now Professor Emeritus, Language Reading and Culture, at the University of Arizona, came up with the idea of miscue analysis. That basically involves looking at the reasons why people read things wrongly (these occasions are called miscues rather than mistakes to avoid upsetting people).

For instance, if a child sees a sentence that begins Look at the - and he says teddy when the word written down is bear, then you know he's got his cue from the illustration, and not the text.

Miscue analysis tells you something about the reading process, but also about the thought-processes and experience of the reader.

I mean, whenever I read about some authority bringing out a draft proposal I always read it as daft proposal. I do this every single time.

Mind you, as often as not I'm right.

Nuts and Bolts: miscue analysis. The word cue probably comes from the name of the letter q, which was used in actors' scripts to stand for the Latin quando, when.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Thing To Deliver Today: a panegyric.

Oh, it's easy to mock (wickedly good fun, too).

In fact mockery is fine unless it becomes a habit, when it can poison the minds of both the mocker and the mocked.

Is it too much to ask for understanding, responsibility and justice?


Still, how about trying a panegyric, that is, a formal piece of praise for someone or something?

Here's one to give you the idea. It's by G K Chesterton. Stilton is a place in Cambridgeshire, England, where they once sold a cheese called, er, stilton

(By law it now, bizarrely, has to be made somewhere else.)

Sonnet to a Stilton Cheese

Stilton, thou shouldst be living at this hour
And so thou art. Nor losest grace thereby;
England has need of thee, and so have I -
She is a Fen. Far as the eye can scour,
League after grassy league from Lincoln tower
To Stilton in the fields, she is a Fen.
Yet this high cheese, by choice of fenland men,
Like a tall green volcano rose in power.
Plain living and long drinking are no more,
And pure religion reading 'Household Words',
And sturdy manhood sitting still all day
Shrink, like this cheese that crumbles to its core;
While my digestion, like the House of Lords,
The heaviest burdens on herself doth lay.

Blue Stilton 01.jpg
photo by Coyau

Mind you, as you may have noticed, this panegyric manages to mock poor old Wordsworth at the same time. 

Clever man, was Chesterton - and, thank Heavens, still spreading cheer.

Word To Use Today: stilton. The name of the village of Stilton was Stichiltone in 1086. It probably means something like farmstead or village by the stile or at the bottom of a steep hill

Monday 23 March 2020

Spot the Frippet: Fibonacci patterns.

Who first noticed and discussed the series of numbers known as Fibonacci numbers?

I'll give you a clue. He was Italian.

Yep, it was good old Leonardo...


Yep, that's right: Pisano.

Anyway, in 1202 Leonardo was thinking about rabbits. How many rabbits can be generated in a year from one breeding pair?

It's not quite as simple as it looks, because even rabbits take a while to come to breeding age. Now, Pisano decided to assume that each litter consisted of one male and one female. If you begin with one new-born pair, they will breed at one month old, and the first litter will appear after another month, and then there will be two pairs, that is, the original pair and their children. A month later the original pair will have another litter, but the children from the first litter have only just got to breeding age, so their first litter will take another month to appear.

File:Baby rabbits! (5187415447).jpg
photo by R E Naddy

The sequence of the number of pairs of rabbits as time goes on will go:

1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89 and so on. Each number is the sum of the previous two numbers.

But how do you spot such a sequence in the real world?

As it happens, the relationship between these numbers underpins all sorts of things. The spiral pattern in the centre of a sunflower, for instance, is constructed along Fibonacci lines: not only will the total number of spirals in the pattern be a Fibonacci number, but the number of right-hand and left-hand spirals will be two consecutive Fibonacci numbers. You can see the same sort of pattern in pine cones:

File:Jack pine cone (St Joseph Twp).JPG
photo by Fungus Guy

 pineapples and cauliflower.

The interiors of spiral shells increase in area of cross-section according to the Fibonacci series (I hope I've got that right). The same sort of spiral can be seen in the petals of an opening rose:

File:Pink rose cultivar.jpg
photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Even the veins of a leaf will often arrange themselves according to the Fibonacci series.

And just look in the mirror: why do you have one head, two eyes, three segments to your limbs, and five fingers? Is that a coincidence? 

Well, don't ask me, ask a scientist. 

Mind you, he or she won't know, either.

Spot the Frippet: a Fibonacci pattern. The word Fibonacci means son of Bonacci, who was Leonardo Pisano's dad.

And then there are clouds. Those great swirling shapes? Yep. All about to rain down on some very beautiful flowers...

...and a rather odd number of rabbits.

Sunday 22 March 2020

Sunday Rest: panic. Word Not To UseToday.

As far as I can tell from the shelves of my local supermarket, the panic-buyers of Britain intend to live for the next few weeks exclusively on a diet of spaghetti bolognese garnished with toothpaste.

And I hope they enjoy it.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will be taking slightly more rational decisions. This is probably not as much fun, but is more likely to be of long-term help to everyone.

In any case, how healthy is it going to be to have been spotted unloading massive amounts of food from the car when other people start feeling a bit peckish?

Sunday Rest: panic. This word is rather new in English. It arrived during the 1600s from the French panique, ultimately from the Greek panikos, which means coming from Pan, the Greek god. 

The god Pan is well-known for lurking about in woods terrifying people with his horns, exceptionally hairy legs, and really really fatuous pipe music.

File:Sweet, piercing sweet was the music of Pan's pipe.jpg
illustration by Walter Crane.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Saturday Rave: The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

A windhover is a kestrel, a smallish bird of prey. They hunt by hovering, or perching, and then swooping down on animals - mainly mice - on the ground.

To be prosaic, just for a moment, windhovers can see light near to the ultra-violet range, and this enables them to see the urine trials of animals.

To Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing at Theological College in 1877, however, the windhover was not prosaic at all, in any sense. It was a creature of glorious poetry:

photo by Charles H Sharp Sharp Photography, sharpphotography

To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning's minion, king-
dom of the daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling underneath him of the steady air, and striding 
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off, forth on swing
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding 
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier. more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.


Is that what you think to yourself when you see a bird?


Well, there's the point of poetry for you.

Word To Use Today: sillion. This word comes from the French sillon, furrow, and means the thick shining soil turned over by a plough.

Friday 20 March 2020

Word To Use Today: spraint.

Spraint is a piece of otter's dung.

File:Sea otter pair2.jpg
photo by Ed Bowlby

No, it's not the sort of thing you trip over every day - which is good, because it's dark, tar-like, smelly stuff.

The most amusing thing about this word, I think, is that it comes from the same source as the word espresso.

File:Making of espresso coffee in Třebíč, Třebíč District.jpg


Word To Use Today: spraint. This word comes from the Medieval French espraintes, from espreindre, to press out.

Thursday 19 March 2020

What Do We Want?: a rant.

We have a Conservative (ie mostly rather to the right of centre) Government in Britain at the moment. This fact, understandably, annoys Her Majesty's Opposition (the other main party) very much.

In fact one of the more left-wing commentators was moved to post this message on Twitter on March 15th:

We need to all unite around 5 demands the government must agree to implement during the coronavirus crisis. What should they be?

Now, the Government is at the moment strongly advising against our getting together in crowds, and this is unfortunate because what we really need now, given this example of thoughtful leadership, is a protest march.

I can just hear the chanting:





Well, that'd make the Establishment shake in its boots, wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: demand. The Anglo-French form of this word was demaunder. It comes from the Latin dēmandāre, to commit to, from mandāre, to command or entrust.

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Nuts and Bolts: Teenage Forensic Linguistics

How does a teenager write?

Yes, on a phone keyboard, obviously, but I was thinking more about style and content.

This question may seem to be of relevance only to novelists, but there's one another group of people who need to be able to write word-perfect teenager, and that's police agents investigating adults who are trying, or might be trying, to groom young people.

It's not as easy to pose as a teenager as it might be thought. That's partly because teenage literary fashion is fleeting, but there are other reasons. For instance, teenagers are much better at spelling than tends to be assumed, and they are currently much less addicted to emoticons and text abbreviations than formerly (haven't you noticed? We nearly all (and absolutely all teenagers) have alphabetic keyboards on our phones. No one needs to LOL any more. Anyway, that was always a habit of really elderly people aged well over, like, eighteen). 


Something else which might give away a police agent's identity when posing as a teenager might be introducing a new topic, or asking a lot of questions. 

The good news is that, after training in this teenage branch of forensic linguistics, the rate at which agents' covers are blown has been reduced from seventy five per cent to twenty five per cent.

So there we are: an academic interest in language can be really rather important.

Word To Use Today: forensic. This word means to do with law. It comes from the Latin word forēnsis, which means public, from forum, a public meeting place, from foris, which means outside.

The academics behind this scheme are Professor Tim Grant, of Aston University, and Dr Nicci MacLeod, of Northumbria University.

Tuesday 17 March 2020

Thing To Be Today: plump.

Is plump good? Well, it is if you're a wallet or a goose or a cushion.

But is skinny better if you're a person?

Well, I'm not certain about that, but plump is by far the more endearing word.

Plump, plump, plump...

Luckily you can join a plump gathering and still be skinny, because a plump is an old word for a group of people or animals (or indeed, almost anything else).

Even nowadays, this meaning still has some resonance. I'm sure you've seen a plump of lunching businessmen, for instance.

If you yourself are well-cushioned then you will be able to plump yourself down on a chair without discomfort. Is this a coincidence?

History doesn't tell us, but I doubt it.

Thing To Be Today: plump. This word started off in the 1400s meaning dull or rude, but by the 1500s it had its modern meaning. It's probably something to do with the Dutch word plomp, which means dull or blunt.

The dropping-down word is probably imitative. 

No one knows from where the group-of-things word comes.

Monday 16 March 2020

Spot the Frippet: craft.

Craft is a confusing sort of a word.

Does it describe something made skillfully? 

File:Thai fruit carving.jpg
carved fruit in Thailand. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by ศีลงูสาวสวยปาแหวน

Or does it describe something designed to deceive and trick - something crafty?

It's usually the former in modern English, but both are well worth noticing.

Where will you find your nearest piece of craft? At the moment I'm wearing some lovely warm mittens knitted by my good friend the writer and broadcaster Adèle Geras. I'm sitting between a couple of interesting acrylic paintings; just through the doorway there's a bowl of wooden fruit made in different woods, and it's sitting on my grandparents' hand-made oak bureau.

When does craft become art? 

When the maker steps beyond what he knows, I suppose.

But even so, he doesn't necessarily have to leave craft behind.

Spot the Frippet: craft. This word comes from the Old English cræft, which means skill.

And, for those of you with no interest in anything even vaguely arty, there are always boats and air- and space-craft to spot.

Sunday 15 March 2020

Sunday Rest: mobocracy. Word Not To Use Today.

Mobocracy is a word used mostly by those who find democracy inconvenient.

Still, I suppose it makes everyone's position clear.

Sunday Rest: mobocracy. The word mob comes from the Latin mōbile vulgus, the fickle populace. Mōvere means to move. The - cracy bit is Greek, and comes from kratos, which means power. 

Saturday 14 March 2020

Saturday Rave: I made another garden by Arthur O'Shaughnessy

Arthur O'Shaughnessy, 1844 - 1881, was, despite his name, an English poet (though of course he came from an Irish family).

He isn't the only literary man of Irish family to make a splash in England (Wilde and Swift come to mind); he isn't the only poet to have died young (Keats, Sidney); he isn't the only writer to have had a family life full of tragedy (Emily Bronte, Kafka); and he isn't the only poet to have had work set to music by a genius (Blake, Goethe).

But Arthur O'Shaughnessy is surely the only poet to have had four species of lizard named after him. 

(His day job was at the British Museum).

O'Shaughnessy wrote some excellent stuff. His most famous poem was We are the Music Makers (it was been set to music by, among others, Elgar and Kodály) but here's I made another garden.

I made another garden, yea,
For my new love;
I left the dead rose where it lay,
And set the new above.
Why did the summer not begin?
Why did my heart not haste?
My old love came and walked therein
And laid the garden waste.

She entered with her weary smile
Just as of old;
She looked around a little while,
And shivered at the cold.
Her passing touch was death to all,
Her passing look a blight:
She made the white rose-petals fall,
And turned the red ones white. 

Her pale robe, clinging to the grass
Seemed like a snake
That bit the grass and ground, alas!
And a sad trail did make.
She went up slowly to the gate;
And here, just as of yore,
She turned back at the last to wait,
And say goodbye once more.

Calumma oshaughnessyi.jpg
O'Shaughnessy's chameleon, Calumma oshaughnessy Photo by Torsten Kunsch

Word To Use Today: snake. This word was snaca in Old English. It's related to the Old High German snahhan, to crawl, and the Norwegian snōk, which means snail.

Friday 13 March 2020

Word To Use Today: scat.

Good grief, as if things weren't bad enough now it's flipping Friday the thirteenth!

Ah well, look at it this way: if you can survive today then you can survive anything.

So let's put a little joy into the day by thinking of something jolly. 


Well, given that different things make people giggle, how about the word scat?

Scat can be a form of jazz characterised by nonsense sounds:

Or it can be animal poo:

File:Black bear scat.jpg
This is black bear poo. Presumably found in a wood.

Or a scat can be a type of fish of the Asian family Scatophagus argus, which is very beautiful (the argus bit implies lots of eyes):

Scatophagus argus (Wroclaw zoo)-2.JPG
photo by Guérin Nicolas 

but, although very handsome, its menu choice must surely make the rest of us feel rather blessed.

Bon appetit!

Word To Use Today: scat. The jazz word is probably an imitation of the sounds people make when singing it. The other words come from the Greek skat- which I'm afraid means dung. I'm even more afraid that -phagus is to do with eating.

Thursday 12 March 2020

KPI: a rant.

Someone used the initials KPI on the radio the other day. Apparently they stand for Key Performance Indicator.

Now if I only knew what that meant, I might be a bit further on.

Word To Use Today: indicator. This word comes from the Latin word indicāre, to point out (it's what you do with your index finger) from dicāre, to proclaim.

An enquiry of Google came up with this quotation: 

"by setting KPIs the company enables the team to make smart business decisions about the direction of all current projects


Further research suggests that a KPI was previously known as a target.

Ah well. I suppose these bits of jargon are useful for alerting us to the fact that a particular company likes to put its customers last.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Nuts and Bolts: mirror writing.

**Sorry, I've been having all sorts of technical problems with this computer lately, which is why the writing in this post is a funny colour.**

Go on, have a go at mirror-writing.


Well, for fun, of course. It will almost certainly be easier to form the letters if you write with your dominant hand, but is it easier to know what shapes to make if you use your other one?

Well, I don't know: you tell me.

Still, mirror-writing does have the occasional useful application:


(though recognising an emergency vehicle is seldom going to be reliant, one would think, upon reading the label on the front).

Of course we all know that Leonardo da Vinci used mirror-writing for his notes. No one knows why he did this, though there are theories about avoiding smearing his ink (he was officially left-handed, though practically almost ambidextrous).

Mirror-writing has long been used as a very weak code, and for magical purposes. There's a theory that people might start using mirror-writing as a result of brain injury or illness; and another theory that writing or reading mirror-writing might make the stuff easier to remember.

I expect this last idea is correct, though I imagine the same effect might be obtained just as quickly by writing the thing down in ordinary writing several times.

Still, the fact that mirror-writing isn't very useful doesn't stop it being really quite cool. And if you don't have anything else in common with Leornardo da Vinci...

Have fun!

Word To Use Today: mirror. This word comes from the Old French mirer, to look at, from the Latin mirārī, to wonder at.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

Thing To Be Today: rosy.

To be rosy is to be pink with health.

This isn't possible for some of us - the health or the pinkness - but luckily there are other ways of being rosy.

To have a rosy outlook is to look forward with optimism and hope; if you have rosy slumbers they will be full of peace and joy.

Of course to be rosy also means being covered in roses, which would be uncomfortable and prickly, but perhaps there is a shirt or a skirt in your wardrobe which might do the trick.

The chief of all these rosy blessings, of course, is health, and the thoughts of all of us in The Word Den must be especially with those of us in China, South Korea, Japan, and Italy.

But here's wishing us all a rosy future, wherever we may be.

Thing To Be Today: rosy. This word has hardly changed down the millennia. The Greek form was rhodon, which you can still see in rhododendron, which means rose tree (even though of course it isn't).

Thing To Be Today: rosy.

To be rosy is to be pink with health.

This is impossible for some of us (the health, as well as the pinkness) but luckily there are other ways of being rosy.

We can have a rosy outlook, where we view the future with hope and confidence; and if our slumbers are rosy they will be filled with happiness, peace, and joy.

To be rosy is also, of course, to be covered in roses.

It seems rather unlikely that a rose tree could grow over someone unnoticed, even if he or she had a substantial computer-gaming habits, but there are shirts or dresses that will do the trick.

Robe à l'anglaise, 1770 - 1790

Best of all these kinds of rosiness, of course, is the blessing of health. The Word Den welcomes visitors from all over the world (lots of you from Turkmenistan at the moment: welcome!) but our thoughts must be especially with those of us in China, Japan, South Korea, Iran, and Italy.

Here's to a hope for a rosy future.

Thing To Be Today: rosy. The word rose has been pretty-much  unchanged more or less for ever. The Greek form was rhodon (which you can still see in the word rhododendron, which means rose tree (though of course it isn't).

Monday 9 March 2020

Spot The Frippet: sand.

Have you got a desert handy? Or, if not, a sandpit

photo by Hyena

Or perhaps there's a supplier of building materials near you:

File:Ultimate Sand Castle.jpg
photo: Jon

You must have a piece of sandpaper somewhere, surely.

Or an egg timer or an hour glass:

File:Hourglass in red leather covered case, second of two views. Wellcome L0011338.jpg
photo by Wellcome Images

(which photograph reminds us that sand isn't always, well, sand-coloured).

If you can't find any of these, how about the sand the sandman brings, that is the little grains of solidified gunk that need to be rubbed out of the eyes in the mornings?

If you can't see any of these then you can at least hear it, because sometimes sand sings:

Though to call that singing is really going a bit far, I think.

Spot the Frippet: sand. This word has remained unchanged in English for over a thousand years. It goes back to the Greek word hamathos.

Sunday 8 March 2020

Sunday Rest: kakorrhaphiophobia. Word Not To Say Today.

Well, all right, you can use the word kakorrhaphiophobia if you can spell it or say it, but no one will know what you're going on about.

Mind you, if you suffer from kakorrhaphiophobia then you won't be doing either in case you can't, because kakorrhaphiophobia means an irrational fear of failure.

Yes, kakorrhaphiophobia is rather a wicked word.

And you know, if it wasn't such a monstrosity I think it would come in rather useful.

Sunday Rest: kakorrhaphiophobia. This word comes from the Greek kakos, bad, -rhaptō, I sew, and phobos fear. The sewing bit has the idea of putting together an evil scheme.

Saturday 7 March 2020

Saturday Rave: Il Cinque Maggio by Alessandro Manzoni

England, as a political unit, is a lot older than the English language. The country of Italy, on the other hand (a much more modern construct) developed the dominant version of the languages of the Italian peninsula as part of the same set of ideas which led to the emergence of the Italian nation.

One person greatly involved in the standardisation of the official Italian language (there are still others, hurray!) was the novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni (1785 - 1873). His most famous work is his novel I promessi sposi, The Betrothed, but here's one of his poems.

Because this poem is quite long I'll provide a link to the original Italian here:

Il Cinque Maggio

instead of copying it out in full.

It's about...well, see if you can work out what it's about.

I ought to say here that Alessandro Manzoni went through a period where he rebelled against his Catholic faith and then spent most of his life doing penance for this lapse.

By the way, as far as I'm concerned, the second stanza of this poem irresistibly brings to mind the fall of Lucifer.

He was, as motionless as lay,
First mingled with the dead,
The relics of the senseless clay,
Whence such a soul had fled, -
The Earth astounded holds her breath,
Struck with the tidings of his death:
    She pauses the last hour to see
Of the dread Man of Destiny;
Nor knows she when another tread,
Like that of the once mighty dead,
Shall such a footprint leave impressed
As his, in blood, upon her breast.

I saw him blazing on his throne,
Yet hailed him not. By restless fate
Hurled from the giddy summit down,
Resume again his lofty state:
Saw him at last for ever fall,
Still mute amid the shouts of all.
    Free from base flattery, when he rose;
From baser outrage, when he fell:
Now his career has reached its close,
My voice is raised, the truth to tell,
And o'er his exiled urn will try
To pour a strain that shall not die.

From Alps to Pyramids were thrown
His bolts from Scylla to the Don,
From Manzanares to the Rhine,
From sea to sea, unerring hurled;
And ere their flash had ceased to shine,
Burst on their aim, - and shook the world.
    Was this true glory? - the high doom
Must be pronounced by times to come:
For us, we bow before His throne,
Who willed, in gifting mortal clay
With such a spirit, to display
A grander impress of his own.

His was the stormy, fierce delight
To dare adventure's boldest scheme;
The soul of fire, that burned for might,
And could of naught but empire dream;
And his the indomitable will
That dream of empire to fulfill,
    And to a greatness to attain
'Twere madness to have hoped to gain:
All these were his; nor these alone -
Flight, victory, exile, and the throne -
Twice in the dust by thousands trod,
Twice on the altar as a god. 

Two ages stood in arms arrayed,
Contending which should victor be:
He spake - his mandate they obeyed,
And bowed to hear their destiny.
He stepped between them, to assume
The mastery, and pronounce their doom,
    Then vanished, and inactive wore
Life's remnant out on that lone shore.
What envy did his palmy state,
What pity his reverses move,
Object of unrelenting hate,
And inextinguishable love!

As beat innumerable waves
O'er the last floating plank that saves
One sailor from the wreck, whose eye
Intently gazes o'er the main,
Far in the distance to descry
Some speck of hope - but all in vain.
    Did countless waves of memory roll
Incessant, thronging on his soul,
Recording, for a future age,
The tale of his renown,
How often on the immortal page
His hand sank weary down!

Oft on some sea beat cliff alone
He stood, the lingering daylight gone,
And pensive evening come at last,
With folded arms, and eyes declined;
While, O, what visions on his mind
Came rushing - of the past!
    The rampart stormed - the tented field, -
His eagles glittering far and wide,
His columns never taught to yield, -
His cavalry's resistless tide,
Watching each motion of his hand,
Swift to obey the swift command.
Such thoughts, perchance, last filled his breast,
And his departing soul oppressed,
To tempt it to despair;
Till from on high a hand of might
In mercy came to guide its flight
Up to a purer air, -
    Leading it, o'er hope's path of flowers,
To the celestial plains,
Where greater happiness is ours
Than even fancy feigns,
And where earth's fleeting glories fade
Into the shadow of a shade.

Immortal, bright, beneficent,

Faith, used to victories, on thy roll
Write this with joy; for never bent
Beneath death's hand a haughtier soul;
Thou from the worn and pallid clay
Chase every bitter word away,
    That would insult the dead.
His holy crucifix, whose breath
Has power to raise and to depress,
Send consolation and distress,
Lay by him on that lowly bed

And hallowed it in death.

Word To Use Today: glory. The Old French form of the word glory was glorie. Before that there was the Latin glōria, but where that comes from no one knows.