Gently enchanted

April 10, 2021

The Last of the Name by Charles McGlinchey (1861–1954) is an account of life in rural Ireland generations ago: customs, beliefs, practicalities, peculiarities. Published in 1986 with Brian Friel as editor, it is acclaimed as a ‘minor classic’ by Seamus Heaney. It’s also linguistically rich; in this and the next post I’ll note two words that caught my eye.

Cover of 'The Last of the Name' published by Blackstaff Press, 1986. The cover is cream-coloured and dominated by a black and white illustration, almost like a woodcut, of an old woman wearing a shawl and standing in a dark hilly landscape. The book title is in all caps and red typeface above the picture. Below the picture is the author's name in black, followed by the text: 'with an introduction by Brian Friel'First up is gentle, in a supernatural sense not widely known or used. Here’s McGlinchey:

I always heard you should never strike a cow with a holly stick. Holly and hazel are two trees that are gentle [enchanted]. The people used to have a rhyme ‘Holly and hazel went to the wood, holly took hazel home by the lug.’ That meant that holly was the master of the hazel.

[Lug means ‘ear’. The parenthetical gloss for gentle is Friel’s.]

Holly and hazel recur in folk belief and have been credited with protective powers since ancient times. Niall Mac Coitir, in his book Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, writes that in Ireland holly is a crann uasal, a ‘gentle’ or ‘noble’ tree, and that ‘you annoy the fairies when you misuse it, for example by sweeping the chimney with it’.

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A flitch of etymology

October 19, 2015

I was reading Claire Keegan’s short story collection Antarctica* when I came across a fairly uncommon word:

He talks about sheep and cattle and the weather and how this little country of ours is in a woeful state while Bridie sets the table, puts out the Chef sauce and the Colman’s mustard and cuts big, thick slices off a flitch of beef or boiled ham. I sit by the window and keep an eye on the sheep who stare, bewildered, from the car. Da eats everything in sight while I build a little tower of biscuits and lick the chocolate off and give the rest to the sheepdog under the table.

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Timber, temples, and “ligging” a hedge

March 3, 2013

A few short passages from The Shining Levels: The Story of a Man Who Went Back to Nature, John Wyatt’s classic memoir of his time working in England’s Lake District. First, on how to “lig” a hedge, which the OED says is an old – and now dialectal – word for lie. (See etymology of lie.)

It was a pleasure to watch Joe ‘lig’ a hedge; for the work was his pride and joy. Hedges around where we were are a wild mixture of hawthorn, hazel, ash and holly. Laying a hedge is necessary when it grows too tall and shows gaps. Bough undergrowth is cut away, leaving the bare upright stems which are then cut only part-way through near the butt, then pulled over and layed [sic] in neat lines, occasionally being pinned firm with hazel stakes. The tools for the job are a pair of leather hedging mitts, one very sharp bill-hook, and a stone to whet it with at regular intervals.

Later one evening Wyatt and a friend are smearing a homemade concoction on tree trunks in order to attract moths for study. The substance is “a mixture of demerara sugar, a drop of ale, treacle, and a good lacing of rum”; the dialogue is similarly rich:

When we reached the first tree, George pulled the lid off his jar, and said, ‘By gow, lad, this smells about ten ‘orse power!’ He dipped in his spatula and tasted it. ‘And it tastes better than t’best Cumberland rum-butter!’

I didn’t believe it, so had to try it myself.

‘Th’art reet!’ I agreed.

Wyatt sought to convey his sense of the everyday sublime while living and working in the woods, surrounded as he was by so much natural beauty. Here, he adds a short and unexpected etymological note:

The word ‘temple’ comes from the root ‘tem’, to cut – a forest clearing. The inspiration of those who made civilization’s first temples and churches all over the world, was the forest. You can see it in the pillars, the arched roofs, the decorated ceilings. For the gods walk in the forest.

The American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition, in its appendix of Proto-Indo-European roots, says *tem- had a suffixed form *tem-lo- from which we get “Latin templum, temple, shrine, open place for observation (augury term < ‘place reserved or cut out’), small piece of timber.” It’s a gratifying connection.


Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types

February 14, 2012

In 1937, a hundred years after its founding, the Bauer Type Foundry issued Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types:

I know little about typeface design, still less its history, so I can’t comment on the accuracy. But I like the idea of a family tree of types, and it’s a fine presentation: the fonts are like colourful garden birds preening peaceably in the sun, each showing off its unique qualities.

For detail and supplementary text, see Steven Heller’s post at Print magazine, which brought the tree to my attention.


The limits of pruning

April 12, 2010

The perimeter of a garden not far from where I live was lined, until recently, with mature evergreen trees. They numbered about a dozen: tall, beautiful, and busy with songbirds and various other life forms. Then they were gone, leaving only a series of pitiful stumps. It happened virtually overnight; the following day, the stumps were reduced further, almost to ground level. (See photo; click to enlarge.)

I’d like to give the landowners the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to think of a justifiable reason for their decision. Even if they had one, it’s still a great shame. Anyway, the company employed to fell the trees and remove the timber had a curious sign, and you know how difficult it is for me to resist writing about curious signs.

That “TREE CARE” is obviously and wildly misleading needs no emphasis or elaboration. “Tree Pruning In Progress” made me wonder if there was a sense in which pruning could mean chopping down. I grew up with the idea that pruning was a kind of cultivation: removing dangerous, dead, or superfluous growth, usually to serve a plant’s best interests — essentially a modest and beneficent reduction of the organism. This kind of pruning is visible and audible as I type (see photo, left).

So off I set for the dictionaries. Here are some relevant findings:

Oxford English Dictionary: 1. Cut down, shorten or abbreviate by cutting, esp. by removing superfluous or unwanted matter. Also, remove as superfluous or unwanted. Marston’s text—judiciously pruned… 2. Trim (a tree, shrub, or plant) by cutting or lopping dead or overgrown branches, twigs, or shoots, esp. to increase fruitfulness and regular growth. Freq. followed by down. Prune the plants . . . down to the last active growth. 3. Cut or lop (dead or overgrown branches, twigs, or shoots) from a tree or shrub, esp. to increase fruitfulness and regular growth. Freq. followed by off, away.

Merriam-Webster: transitive verb 1 a : to reduce especially by eliminating superfluous matter <pruned the text> <prune the budget>; b : to remove as superfluous <prune away all ornamentation>; 2 : to cut off or cut back parts of for better shape or more fruitful growth <prune the branches>; intransitive verb : to cut away what is unwanted or superfluous.

Macmillan: 1. prune or prune back: to remove parts of a tree or plant, for example to make it grow better. We’ll need to prune back the branches this year. 2. to get rid of something that you do not need or want, especially in order to reduce the size or cost of something. Companies must continually prune costs to stay competitive.

American Heritage Dictionary: Transitive. 1. To cut off or remove dead or living parts or branches of (a plant, for example) to improve shape or growth. 2. To remove or cut out as superfluous. 3. To reduce: prune a budget. Intransitive. To remove what is superfluous or undesirable.

It seems, then, that chopping down trees can, at a stretch, be described as pruning. But it’s rather misleading because in a botanical context the word carries the chief and plant-friendly sense I mentioned in paragraph 3 above. And then there’s that phrase “TREE CARE”, which is laughably inaccurate, at least in this instance. It’s the kind of care I associate with organised crime (They took care of Louie, huh?)

Two euphemisms in seven words is an impressive count — more impressive than the paltry 10% tree cover Ireland currently claims, very little of which comprises native species. Call me a tree hugger if you wish — I’ve called myself worse — but I’d like to see more signs like this:

And fewer stumps and eyes of Sauron:

Some Irish-tree-related links: Tree Council, Native Woodland Trust, Notice Nature, Irish Wildlife Trust, Crann, and Woodlands of Ireland.