Archives for the month of: November, 2013

chaunges one chaucer

Languages have a way of changing. Certain words and expressions adapt – sticking with us for centuries – while others disappear entirely. Here are five Middle English expressions we no longer use:

1.       Drunken as a Mouse

This expression is probably best known from its appearance in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale[1] – the first Canterbury Tale. There’s no doubt this expression comes from the peculiar state cellar mice were found in after gnawing on wooden casks of wine or ale. Though aging ale in wooden casks is starting to make a comeback in home and craft brewing, mice haven’t been associated with beer in popular culture since Bob and Doug McKenzie used one in a bottle to try to get a free case of Elsinore beer.

bob and doug mckenzie try to get free beer using a mouse in a bottle

Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) try to get a free case of beer using a mouse in a bottle in the film Strange Brew (copyright 1983 MGM).

The expression later became “Drunk as a skunk” – probably only because it rhymes. When’s the last time you’ve heard anyone say, “Drunk as a skunk” anyway?

2.       Breme as bore

Brave (or fierce) as a boar. It appears in The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur[2] where it is used several times to describe how awesome certain knights of King Arthur’s court are at jousting. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of a lance driven by a knight who was as “breme as a boar.”

This expression is one of my personal favorites and I’d love to bring it back. Problem is, “breme” didn’t make it to our Modern English. I suppose we could use “brave as a boar” but it just doesn’t have the same ferocious ring to it. Plus, how often does a wild boar come up in conversation anymore? Though they seem to always be around in Middle English and Middle High German texts, we rarely hear of run-in’s with wild boars these days – unless, of course, they are Sylvester Stallone legends from Bulgaria.

3.       They walwe as doon two pigges in a poke

They wrestled like two pigs in a poke. Chaucer used this expression to animate the cartoonish climax of his Reeve’s Tale. Symkyn the Miller and Alalyn are in a fight cloud like pigs in a poke until Symkyn slips on a stone, falling backward onto his wife in bed giving Alayn and John the chance to get out of Dodge.

Growing up in the American South, I occasionally heard the expression “like two pigs in a poke” but, famously getting expressions wrong and not knowing that a “poke” was a sack – I thought it meant something along the lines of two pigs trying to pass a threshold at the same time – not wriggling around in a sack.

The closest I’ve ever come to seeing this expression acted out was in West Africa. Once, when my wife and I were en route from either Grand Popo or Porto Novo to Cotonou, the taxi driver stopped at a roadside stand to load some pigs in the trunk. We could hear – and sometimes feel – their wrestling behind us for the entire journey.

When we finally reached Cotonou, the driver stopped at a Barbeque stand where the pigs were unloaded for a big lady who oversaw the removal of the beasts from the back of our vehicle looking stern and unimpressed. We were surprised to see that there were actually three pigs in the trunk instead of two. Though it greatly annoyed the other two ladies who were stuffed like sardines in the backseat with us – we were lucky we kept our backpacks on us instead of storing them in the trunk.

4.       Not worth a leek

Chaucer used this expression in his Wife of Bath’s lecture on marriage. The entire line is:

I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek
That hath but oon hole for to sterte to
And if that faille, thane is al ydo. (D ll. 572-74)

This basically means marriage is like a mouse who only has one hole. If the mouse loses his hole, he has nothing. It’s a long way of a saying, “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” – which we could use on one level to sum up the entire Wife of Bath’s Prologue. I’m not talking about the entire sense of these compound expressions though. Instead, I’m looking specifically at the expression “not worth a leek.” I’ve only seen that expression in Middle English texts. We don’t use “not worth an onion” (another one Chaucer often uses) and “not worth a leek” anymore. We’ve replaced them, at least in America, with “not worth a dime.” Why is that so?

5.       Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt

I wasn’t intending to give Wife of Bath two spots on this list, but her work is chock full of witty expressions. We know what “First to the mill, first to grind” means, but we never hear it used today. Since everyone in a 14th century village needed their grain ground (whether they farmed it or not) on a regular basis, people spent a lot of time waiting their turn to get this done. We no longer rely on the miller to save us from grinding grain by hand all day.

We’ve since replaced this expression with “the early bird gets the worm” or “first come, first serve.” Many Americans will be thinking about this expression come Black Friday and as Christmas shopping season ramps up even more – I doubt they’ll use the words “first to the mill is first to grind”, but they will be thinking the same thing.


[1] References to Chaucer in Middle English are taken from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[2] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur from King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Larry D. Benson, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1974).

While sharing a few homebrews with Frank, we somehow got on the subject of wyrms. He recalled The Lambton Wyrm, a song he’d often hear in Northumberland back when Newcastle Exhibition was unfiltered and tapped from wooden casks. It’s about a knight who slays a dragon – or “wyrm” – who lives in a well and terrorizes the land.

lambton wyrm

The Wonderful Legend of the Lambton Worm (image source)

It all starts when the knight John Lambton goes fishing on a Sunday morning he really should have been at church. He catches a strange little worm-thing and throws it in a well. Years later, he goes fighting in the Crusades and we all know from Robin Hood how local leadership behaves when that happens. While John Lambton is away at the Crusades, that little worm-thing grows into a horrible dragon – The Lambton Wyrm.

The Lambton Wyrm did many terrible things. It ate all of the cows, calves, and sheep. It swallowed little birds alive. After that it would wash everything down with the milk of a dozen cows and then coil itself around a mountain. With Good Sir Lambton away what were the people to do?

Well, John Lambton eventually returned home from the Crusades and he triumphantly slew the wyrm, but the satirical legend that remains reminds us that our actions affect others – especially if we are people in positions of power.

Anyway, the story is supposedly set on Easter Sunday 1420 and the most popular version of the legend is a song credited to C.M. Leumane from 1867. It reminds me of a cross between Jabberwocky and Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas – but in a pub. It’s a song all good children in Northumberland learn and are made to perform at school pagents. Here’s a good version:

 

The chorus is very catchy and goes like this:

Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whist! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the wyrm.

Now, since I didn’t grow up in Northumberland, my mother never said, “WHISHT, man – Haad your gob!!” to make me quiet. The only context I’d heard the word ‘gob’ used in was in ‘gobbing.’

(I wrote the link to start the clip at 45:22 with Johnny Green talking about people gobbing on The Clash, but it often plays the entire film instead – I can’t think of a better way to spend the night…)

What if gobbing had been only been revived by the British punks? After all, there was a punk group called Siouxsie and the Banshees. Horrified, I wondered if Anglo-Saxon poets had to contend with gobbing in the mead halls. Fortunately my theory was wrong and the line just means something along the lines of, “Hush lads, shut your mouths!” This makes the chorus: “Quiet lads, shut your mouths, and I’ll tell you all an awful story – I’ll tell you about the wyrm!”

This new word for me, Whisht was interesting. It reminded me of the Old English word Hwaet. It is the first word of another story about a dragon slayer from the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem ever – Beowulf.

There’s always been debate over what that word means exactly – and for good reason – after all, it is the opening word of the poem. It sets the tone for the story. It’s meant to be captivating. It’s important. Getting it wrong would be like Joe Schmo masquerading as a sorcerer fudging a word in a spell. Or in this case, Ash:

 

So, what does Hwaet actually mean? The OED describes it being used “to introduce or call attention to a statement.” Medieval scholars have historically suggested that the word more or less functions as an adverb, offering such translations as, ‘truly’, ‘Hear me!’, ‘What ho!’, ‘Indeed’, and ‘So.’[1] The most popular translation of Beowulf is the one done by the late Seamus Heaney. He used ‘So.’ Though Heaney is a highly celebrated poet, many medieval scholars disagree with his using the word ‘So’ to open Beowulf.

In a recent paper, George Walkden argues that the interpretive effect of hwæt is delivered by hwæt combined with the clause that follows it, not by hwæt alone.[2] In other words, it isn’t used by itself.  He argues that the ‘interjective’ hwæt “is not an interjection or an adverb.” Instead, he compares it to the way we use the word how in Modern English in exclamative clauses such as How you’ve changed!”[3]

Most of the translations of Beowulf agree that ‘hwaet’ is exclamative, however, Walkden takes it a step further by presenting evidence to support the use of the hwaet-clause as exclamative in Beowulf. The most convincing are examples from Jessica Rett’s analyses of the use of hwæt in other sources like the Old English Bede and the Old Saxon Heliland. Using Walkden’s interpretation, the famous opening line from Beowulf:

Hwæt we Gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon

Opening lines of Beowulf from Manuscript Cotton Vitellius

The Opening lines of Beowulf from Manuscript Cotton Vitellius (image: wikipedia)

becomes:

“How much we have heard of the might of the nation-kings in the ancient times of the Spear-Danes”[4]

So, (sorry, “HWÆT!”) let’s get back to Walkden’s example in Modern English. We wouldn’t say, “HOW! You’ve changed!” – unless… of… course.. it was… William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk reading Beowulf. Which, come to think of it, would be the most awesome performance of Beowulf ever! But since we’ve got medieval scholars to contend with and the modern venue for Beowulf is neither a mead hall or the Starship Enterprise, we know better…

Until then, whichever words we use to begin our own tellings of Beowulf, be they – ‘So’, ‘Whisht lads haad yor gobs’, ‘Once upon a time’, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’, or ‘Back in the day when circles were squares’, the most important thing is that we tell the story of Beowulf – preferably over some homebrews.


[1] George Walkden, “The status of hwæt in Old English,” English Language and Linguistics (Volume 17, issue 3, November 2013), 466. available online: http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/george.walkden/Walkden_2013_hwaet.pdf

[2] Walkden, 466.

[3] Walkden, 466.

[4] Walkden, 481.

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