Asperging words

October 3, 2022

Here’s a verb I don’t remember encountering before. It crops up near the end of this passage in Seamus Deane’s novel Reading in the Dark (1996), where the author describes a dramatic childhood winter in Northern Ireland:

Paperback book cover of Vintage edition features a photo, black and white but tinted pink, of two schoolboys in uniform. One boy looks melancholy; the other smiles cheerfully at the camera. Below the author's name and book title is a line from the publisher about the book winning the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Irish Literature Prize 1997.The Germans came only once, made a bombing run on the docks where the American ships were lined up in threes and fours, missed, and never came again. The sirens had given several false alarms before, but this time the throb of the approaching planes seemed to make them more frenetic. We woke to their wild moanings, were carried to safety under the stairs and cradled sleepily between our parents, lightly asperged by the bright drops of cold Lourdes water that my mother would every so often sprinkle on us. I remember the silence when the droning stopped and then the long lamentation of each plane’s dive.

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Game of mondegreens

September 5, 2022

A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric, like ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ (instead of ‘. . . kiss the sky’). The word is itself a mondegreen, stemming from a mishearing of ‘laid him on the green’ as ‘Lady Mondegreen’ in an old ballad. I wrote about mondegreens for Macmillan Dictionary back in 2014.

Recently I discovered an elaborate one of my own. In my early teens I had a rave-music phase, playing a tape compilation continually for months (and baffling my parents, who were paying for classical piano lessons). This was years before I started clubbing, but something in the music’s rebellious energy and fun samples connected with me.

One of the highlights on that tape was a cartoon rave track named ‘Trip to Trumpton’ by Urban Hype. If you don’t know the song or the source of its samples – a children’s TV series from Britain – then I invite you to play a game: Before reading further, write down what you think the line at 0.42 is. It’s repeated four times:

Don’t overthink it or create a spectrogram or anything – just go with your first hunch. It doesn’t have to make sense. My interpretation certainly didn’t. Then let me know in a comment what you heard.

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One did not talk nonsense to horses: Notes on Molly Keane by her daughter Sally Phipps

May 27, 2022

When the Irish author Molly Keane (1904–1996) suggested to her daughter Sally Phipps that she write Keane’s biography, she told her: ‘I trust you completely; the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.’

Book cover shows a black and white portrait photo of Molly Keane as a young woman, with title ('Molly Keane: A Life') and author's name, Sally Phipps, below it, along with a blurb from Diana Athill: 'Marvellous'.The result of that proposal, Molly Keane: A Life (Virago, 2017), is an excellent account I can recommend to anyone who enjoys Keane’s work. It contains several passages and items of linguistic note, which – this being a blog about language – may be of passing interest also to those who have not read her.

Keane wrote her first dozen or so novels as ‘M. J. Farrell’. The name came to her fortuitously:

When returning from hunting one evening she saw the name M. J. Farrell over a pub doorway and she took it as a pseudonym. Secrecy was important to her as she thought no one would dance with her in the horsey society in which she moved if it was known she was a writer.

The seriousness of ‘horsey society’ extended to the horses themselves:

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Character names in ‘Days of Heaven’

July 11, 2019

Terrence Malick’s film Days of Heaven was in large part created as it went along, its makers open to creative possibility and rediscovering it in editing and post-production. One major change in its design was the removal of much of its dialogue, with Malick and colleagues intent on telling a visual story as much as possible.

To compensate for this reduction of plot and exposition, Malick added a voiceover, as he had done in his earlier Badlands. It was provided by young Linda Manz and can be heard in the beautiful clip below. Some of the voiceover was written by Malick, and some came from Manz based on her hearing a woman read from the Book of Revelation:

In the book Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected (2015), edited by Carlo Hintermann and Daniele Villa, film editor Billy Weber talks about Manz and the indelible effect she had on the film – including its characters’ names:

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“Quotation marks” or ‘inverted commas’?

May 31, 2019

‘Words for punctuation,’ Lynne Murphy writes in her new book The Prodigal Tongue, ‘offer a neat little laboratory for viewing the possible fates of migrating words.’

Penguin UK book cover of Lynne Murphy's The Prodigal Tongue. Red cover, with black text and white text. The main title is in speech bubbles from two illustrated men squaring up to box one another. One is dressed as a cowboy, the other in a bowler hat and business suit.When North America was being settled, norms of punctuation, including the marks’ names, were very much in flux. So when things stabilized, the names in the US and the UK sometimes differed. Certain marks, such as the comma and question mark, acquired the same name in both regions; others, such as the full stop (period, full point), diverged.

The latter group also includes quotation marks, aka inverted commas. But the facts are more complicated – and therefore more interesting – than is generally supposed. Here’s Murphy:

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The Irish diminutive suffix -een

January 16, 2019

In A Brilliant Void, a new anthology of vintage Irish science fiction edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018), I saw some examples of a grammatical feature I’ve been meaning to write about: the Irish English suffix –een. Anglicised from Irish –ín /iːn/, it normally signifies littleness or endearment but can also disparage or serve other functions.

Look up –ín in Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary and you’ll find such diverse examples as an t-éinín bíogach ‘the chirpy little bird’, an choisín chomair ‘the neat little foot’, an bheainín ghleoite ‘the charming little woman’, an méirín púca ‘the foxglove’, and an paidrín páirteach ‘the family rosary’.

The –ín suffix is so productive in Irish, and Irish so influences the traditional dialects of English in Ireland, that it’s no surprise –een became established in vernacular Irish English, especially in the west. You probably know it if you’re at all familiar with Irish speech or culture; even if not, you may recognise some of the examples below.

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How ‘Cape Fear’ got its name

August 19, 2018

Last weekend, driving to the Burren in County Clare (just south of Galway, where I live, and an endlessly interesting place to explore), a friend and I picked up the relevant Ordinance Survey map to get a better sense of the terrain.

Maps are a reliable source of pleasure, firing the imagination as we pore over their flattened geography, their special codes and symbols. Digital maps are ubiquitous now, but I still love to use paper maps when the opportunity arises.

Photo of the Clare landscape, with hills in the distance, green fields and hedgerows and mixed forest in the middle-ground, and patches of granite in the foreground, at the edge of Mullaghmore. The sky is bright and cloudy.

View of Co. Clare from Mullaghmore (‘Great Summit’ or ‘Big Summit’)

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