No, this is not a post about the month marking the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Nor is it about walking determinedly from A to B. So what am I referring to?
I’m talking about a liminal space. ‘March’ in this sense is related to the Latin margo, “edge”, giving us the words “margin”, “marginal”, and so on: it can be a buffer, a No Man’s Land or Demilitarised Zone between two states; rulers of such spaces were typically termed margrave, marchese, marqués, marquis or marquess in medieval Europe.
Marches fascinate me. It helps that I live in the Welsh Marches, the lands that straddle the centuries-old fluctuating border between Wales and its bigger neighbour, England. Just like Scotland with its Borders and Ireland with The Pale the Welsh Marches have a long history of disputed control, first between the Britons and the incomers of Anglo-Saxon Mercia (“the land of the border people”) and later with powerful Norman lords asserting themselves against both the king of England and independent Welsh princes.
Here was built the mighty earthwork of Offa’s Dyke to demarcate Mercian territory from Wales; here briefly flourished the heroes who fought against English rule, historic figures like Owain Llawgoch and Owain Glyndŵr, here nestle sites traditionally associated with the legendary King Arthur.
I love words. (You may possibly have noticed.) It’s one of the delights of reading, not just the storyline or characters but the way that sentences and phrases break down before being reassembled, the collocations or how their constituent words are juxtaposed or arranged.
I’m partial to commas, colons, brackets and semicolons (again, you might have noticed) because the more that words and phrases are put together in different relationships the richer the language becomes. So much nicer than the jumble of clichés that we customarily read, hear, write and say, at least to my way of thinking. (Of course, it’s almost impossible not to avoid those habitual collocations — as, for example, erm, my way of thinking.)
And let’s not forget the secondary meaning of ‘collocation’, literally ‘the positioning of things side by side’. I present above a conflation of both definitions, a collocation of dictionaries. You’re now itching to know the background to those volumes, are you not?
If, as Alice Hoffman is everywhere quoted, “Books may well be the only true magic,” then she is only following a tradition that has been acknowledged in all literate cultures: writing is magic, and magic is the written word.
We can point to the beginning of St John’s gospel to see this concept expounded:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Without getting into a theological discussion of what exactly John meant by Logos (‘the Word’), I just want to point out that the spoken word (and later the written word) is seen as the act of creation, and the creative act is magic, in its purest form.
All our language surrounding the concept of words, spoken or written, is closely bound up with magic.
I’m no etymologist but I do like exploring the genealogies of words: quite often these interrelated family trees reveal the real power of both the spoken and the written word, a kind of magic that’s so much stronger than the weak usage ancient roots are treated to over time.
The surefire way to identify an eager beaver young reader is to listen to them.
How do they pronounce the words they’ve seen in print but never heard?
Do they — as I remember being sniggered at for doing — say “causal” instead of casual? Does that understandably precocious child pronounce “foregin” in place of that odd-looking word foreign? And — as I heard an adult enunciate when expanding his horizons into less mundane topics — does “esoteric”sometimes emerge (by analogy with “expectorate” perhaps — with the stress on the second syllable?
Book·ish, my local bookshop, has been highlighting a Word of the Week for the last few weeks, and among those featured has been
— which ironically (or probably deliberately) means “the fear of long words”. The online Urban Dictionary tells us that “sesquippedalio” relates to long words while “phobia” is an irrational fear. As for “hippopoto” and “monstro” (which are derived from hippopotamus and monster) they’re both included to exaggerate the length of the word. If such elongations are not your thing then perhaps the synonym sesquippedaliophobia (which means exactly the same thing) will easily substitute.
Another word featured is one I suggested: abibliophobia, or the fear of having no books to read. I also have high hopes of them including one of my recent neologisms, selidodeiktology, which you may remember is the study of bookmarks.
In the meantime a recent-ish meme has found its way onto their noticeboard. This is vellichor, as defined by — and possibly invented by — the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as
the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.
The pedant in me assumes that what is meant by a “used bookstore” is actually a shop containing many used (that is, secondhand) books, though the Dictionary definition could equally mean a bookstore that is well frequented. Perhaps both are implied. But no matter; more interesting to my mind is, whence this concoction?
WorldWideWords.org suggests that it is a compound of ichor and vellum. “The former is the stuff that was said to flow in the veins of the Greek gods in place of blood,” while the latter refers of course to parchment made from calfskin, such as was used in medieval manuscripts. “For lovers of books, there is nothing more distinctive and melancholy than the sight and smell of old books, redolent of dust and decayed hopes.” They add that the term deserves to be more widely known — so here I am trying to spread the word, though I’ve no idea in what context I’m next likely to use it.
Anyway, all this is a preamble to my lauding of Book·ish which — wouldn’t you know — is hosting the second Crickhowell Literary Festival, or CrickLitFest for short. This year sixty-four events are being staged over nine days, from October 1st to October 9th, featuring talks, literary dinners, workshops, children’s events, film showings and other delights. As festival directors Emma Corfield-Waters and Anne Rowe write, a recent Saturday edition of The Times made reference to Crickhowell’s ‘renowned Literary Festival’ which had, at that point, had only one outing, its inaugural appearance! CrickLit aims again to focus — though not exclusively — on Welsh connections such as authors (like its new President, Owen Sheers) and topics (history, culture and, of course, rugby), but anniversaries such as the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme will all also be commemorated.
Clearly this is intended as not just a nine day wonder to be forgotten once it is over but a celebration of books and writers that will resonate until at least the third festival in 2017. May that strange wistfulness that envelops well-used bookstores continue well into the future!
You may recall I’ve been trying to come up with an acceptable term for the study or collecting of bookmarks. I’ve already suggested aestelology and philaestely, and the consensus from my poll is that the former is the favourite. I invited alternatives, and one suggestion was libellumprohibere, from two Latin words meaning ‘book’ and ‘to stop, keep or preserve’.
But I neglected to look further afield, having restricted my search to just one rare Anglo-Saxon word for an object pointing to words, an æstel; my oft-vaunted Europhile credentials were, for a start, sadly not in evidence. So let me remedy that now with some further thoughts.
The world is filled with magpie minds and natures. You name anything that has the whiff of the mass-produced and there’ll be someone, societies even, collecting it enthusiastically. I was encouraged to collect stamps when I was a kid, steaming used ones off envelopes, affixing them to gridded album pages with special adhesive tabs. Many of them ended up stuck to a papier mâché tray I’d made and varnished over. I also had a thing about matchbox labels — Bryant & May’s designs for England’s Glory and Ship labels varied a lot, I seem to remember. Then there were the coins that my father collected from countries around the South China Seas — I’ve still got a box of them somewhere. I could go on …
But I digress. I’ve already posted about bookmarks, those simple devices for keeping the page reached when there’s a pause in reading a book; it so happens that three of the bookmarks I’m currently using advertise independent bookshops. One is for Seaways Bookshop in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire: it features a stylised lighthouse designed by Sarah Earl — referencing the nearby beacon on Strumble Head — and is mostly bilingual (for example ‘bookshop’ is siop lyfrau in Welsh). The second bookmark is from The Hours Café & Bookshop in Brecon, Powys, with an Art Deco logo and an extract from a laudatory Guardian review, which reads in full:
What links a popular American TV series set in the 1930s, the recent UK referendum, and the End of the World? There will be a bit of wandering in this post while I follow words migrating around Europe (and further afield), all in an attempt to demonstrate those links. But first, I shall start at the end. Land’s End in fact.
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
— Words by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1784), music by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini
In the dim and distant past I sang plainchant. When Latin was the lingua franca for the Catholic Church my school would congregate on high days and holidays to massacre Gregorian chant. Then along came the Vatican Council in the 1960s, vernacular tongues were after nearly two millennia now allowed in Catholic rituals — and plainchant went out the stained glass window. Protestant hymns became more acceptable in services, and in time songs which some call happy-clappy (‘happy-crappy’ according to cynics) came creeping in.
I must admit as a schoolboy I was never much an admirer of plainchant: throughout practices and services I usually had to stifle yawns. Though musically literate I found the old notational conventions bizarre by modern standards, particularly over how long notes needed to be held for — however did any one know how long to hold a note? One of the few conventions seemed to be that a note with a dot after it had to be held a little bit longer.
I knew where I was with modern notation. Semibreves, minims, crotchets — they all made sense to me, having had them drummed into my head from the age of five. It wasn’t till I began to teach music as an adult that I realised that these words made as much sense as calling them Fred or Mary or Voldemort. (Maybe not the latter.) So here’s what I pieced together after some research and the application of guesswork masquerading as logic.
Water. It’s something most of us take for granted — for drinking, for cooking, for washing, for cleaning, for rituals. It drops out of the sky, wells out of the earth, erodes our coasts and scours the earth. Without it we would cease to be, in fact wouldn’t have come into being at all. Is it surprising that so many stories and associations and legends are attached to this sustainer of life?
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.