WOTD: Tumefaction

May 4, 2007

One of my aims in starting the word of the day feature was to spread my love for the English language. I wanted to try and show how playful and inventive a language it can be. We rarely think of our language as beautiful, preferring the elided French, or trilling, exotic Spanish, to say nothing of the emotive Yiddish or wistful Urdu, but that’s really a mistake. Just stop and think of the inner poetics of the “solstice” or the diminutive charm of a world like “flopperoo” (American for “A flop, failure”); and certainly we can’t leave out English’s veritable bounty of synonyms. Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany lists no-less than 38 different carving words, ranging from “spoiling a hen” to “undertranching a porpoise.” (Sadly listed as obs. by the OED; probably because of the scarcity of good porpoise distributors). English is a treasure we all take for granted, a treasure we lose in a move towards a completely standard language.

Take Burns’ poem “A Red, Red Rose”

O my Luve's like a red, red rose,
    That's newly sprung in June:
O my Luve's like the melodie
    That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
    So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
    Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear,
    And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
    While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve!
    And fare thee weel, awhile!
And I will come again, my Luve,
    Tho' it were ten thousand mile!

Burns took full advantage of dialect in this poem, writing it in his Scottish English. The spelling of “melody” had already been standardized by Burns’ time, and was not “melodie.” [Interestingly enough, it appears that different meanings of melody had different spellings in the 16th century, with “Sweet music or song” spelled “melodie” and “to make music, to sing” spelled “melody.” Then again, since the OED doesn’t record the entire langue and parole of each word, it’s hard to tell.] Burns’ spellings mimic his native voice and speech.

My favorite word play in Burns’ poem is his use of the word “gang.” Gang, meaning “to walk, or go” is now solely a literary word. The verb is easily identified as Germanic, similar to the modern German gegangen or the Modern Yiddish, gegangen, the past participles of gehen and geyn, respectively. The word survived in the Northern dialects much longer than it did in the South of England. In the poem, it’s simultaneously highly literary and highly folkloric. This interplay is one of the poem’s greatest successes. Indeed, Burns’ play with regionalism is something to consider the next time you move to cut y’all from your paper (or, in DH’s case, “ye“).

The beauty of the language is something to consider. It’s easy to gloss over the inner beauty of a world like “tumefaction,” considering all the noxious qualities it evokes (swelling; swollen condition; a morbid state). But it’s also nice to pause and consider the play of the sounds therein.