Peninsular Poetry: Language evolving at light speed

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.

The poem, written in Middle English (1100-1500) — not to be confused with Old English (5th through 11th Centuries) — may as well be in another language.

“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.

Scumble by Rae Armantrout
What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as “scumble,” “pinky,”
or “extrapolate?”

What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would pronounce these

Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the other person touched them
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?

One thought on “Peninsular Poetry: Language evolving at light speed

  1. The Passing of the Year
    by Robert W. Service

    My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
    My den is all a cosy glow;
    And snug before the fire I sit,
    And wait to feel the old year go.
    I dedicate to solemn thought
    Amid my too-unthinking days,
    This sober moment, sadly fraught
    With much of blame, with little praise.

    Old Year! upon the Stage of Time
    You stand to bow your last adieu;
    A moment, and the prompter’s chime
    Will ring the curtain down on you.
    Your mien is sad, your step is slow;
    You falter as a Sage in pain;
    Yet turn, Old Year, before you go,
    And face your audience again.

    That sphinx-like face, remote, austere,
    Let us all read, whate’er the cost:
    O Maiden! why that bitter tear?
    Is it for dear one you have lost?
    Is it for fond illusion gone?
    For trusted lover proved untrue?
    O sweet girl-face, so sad, so wan
    What hath the Old Year meant to you?

    And you, O neighbour on my right
    So sleek, so prosperously clad!
    What see you in that aged wight
    That makes your smile so gay and glad?
    What opportunity unmissed?
    What golden gain, what pride of place?
    What splendid hope? O Optimist!
    What read you in that withered face?

    And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
    What find you in that filmy gaze?
    What menace of a tragic doom?
    What dark, condemning yesterdays?
    What urge to crime, what evil done?
    What cold, confronting shape of fear?
    O haggard, haunted, hidden One
    What see you in the dying year?

    And so from face to face I flit,
    The countless eyes that stare and stare;
    Some are with approbation lit,
    And some are shadowed with despair.
    Some show a smile and some a frown;
    Some joy and hope, some pain and woe:
    Enough! Oh, ring the curtain down!
    Old weary year! it’s time to go.

    My pipe is out, my glass is dry;
    My fire is almost ashes too;
    But once again, before you go,
    And I prepare to meet the New:
    Old Year! a parting word that’s true,
    For we’ve been comrades, you and I —
    I thank God for each day of you;
    There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye!

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