Peninsular Poetry: Language evolving at light speedApril 12th, 2011 by Chris Henry
T. S. Eliot wasn’t the only poet inspired by the month of April (now observed as National Poetry Month). Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) set his “Canterbury Tales” in that month with “shoures soote” (sweet showers).
In the introduction of the lengthy poem, Chaucer sets the stage. A group of pilgrims (palmeres) are heading to the shrine of the martyr Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The leader proposes that along the way, they will tell tales to pass the time, since this was way before iPods and in-dash DVD players.
“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, …
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes …”
Here’s the translation of some of the words from my handy “The Major Poets: English and American”: When that (when), soote (sweet), veyne (vein, sap vessel), swich licour (such liquid), of which vertu (by the power of which), holt (wood), croppes (shoots), foweles (birds), seken (seek), strondes (shores), ferne hawles kouthe (distant shrines known). One I found in an online Middle English dictionary, Thanne longen (now and then long). A couple I couldn’t translate: goon on (go on?), hir courages (???).
Chaucer’s poem shows how language evolves over time. Now, imagine dropping Mr. Chaucer into the year 2011, when new words are cropping up daily thanks to instant and constant communication on the Internet, among other factors.
Mirriam Webster seeks to capture this process in its New Words and Slang Open Dictionary
Kerfuffle (first known use, 1946) is positively ancient, compared to most of the entries. It means disturbance, fuss, and is said to derive from “an alteration of carfuffle, from Scots car – (probably from Scottish Gaelic cearr wrong, awkward) + fuffle to become disheveled.”
I’m eagerly awaiting my first legitimate chance to use the word “kerfuffle.”
Other, more recent entries include:
pixely (adjective): showing pixels; “I’ve enlarged this photo, but it looks quite pixely.”; March 29, 2011 anonmous)
earworm (noun): a catchy tune that gets stuck in your mind even after you might like it to be gone; submitted by: Chris L. from Iowa on Mar. 26, 2011 16:08
friend farming (noun) : the practice of adding many contacts (as on Facebook) by using a list of another person’s friends; submitted by Kevin from Illinois on Mar. 10, 2011 15:20
snarcasm (noun) : sarcasm; submitted by: Gwen Gadaire from Florida on Feb. 12, 2011 08:38
quakami (noun): Combination of earthQUAKe And tsunAMI; “Japan is still reeling from the quakami that struck that nation a week ago.”; Submitted by: Ray Zelko from Ohio on Mar. 28 2011 11:27
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rae Armantrout,
whose work has been described as “little thought-bombs detonating
in the mind long after the first reading,” has written a poem based
on the word scumble: (sk m b l)
tr.v. scum·bled, scum·bling, scum·bles
1. To soften the colors or outlines of (a painting or drawing) by covering with a film of opaque or semiopaque color or by rubbing.
2. To blur the outlines of: a writer who scumbled the line that divides history and fiction.
What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would
Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the other person
lightly and carelessly with his tongue.
What if “of” were such a hot button?
“Scumble of bushes.”
What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing
by another’s name?