RIP, TEAR AND RENT

Words have been swirling around me lately the way dry leaves eddy in the wind – lifting and swirling high up before falling down; scattering; disappearing; and dropping out of nowhere to nestle in my brain or to tickle me with the desire to use them. Our U3A talk last week was about the vagaries of English spelling; I am reading that delightful novel The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams; and today I solved Wordle in the first try for the first time. The word was found. Now isn’t that a satisfying word: that something that has been lost has now been found; or that a burst of happiness has found me and landed unexpectedly on my shoulder.

“English is a precise language,” my maternal grandfather would admonish me. “There is a word for everything,” he would explain, probably after hearing me uttering yet another Afrikaans word or slang that peppered the then flat nasal Transvaal accent of my youth. Both the accent and the sloppy language use was probably jarring to his ears. Finding some of those ‘words for everything’ is why I enjoy receiving A-word-a-Day in my inbox every single day. It is from that source, for example, that I discovered that the large marble used as a shooter that we grew up calling a ‘goen’ is actually a ‘taw’ in English!

I have encouraged my own children to use language more precisely – easier for them as they grew up in a predominantly English-speaking environment, were schooled in English, and with my own accent modulated by me having spent seventeen years living in Natal. They love words too. We play with them; toss them about; find new uses for them; and we revel in coming across new words from whatever source. What about scurryfunge? This refers to the hasty tidying of one’s house when a last-minute guest is coming to visit. Admit it, we have all had to resort to scurryfunging at one time or another!

I sometimes challenged the pupils in my English classes to get out of their well-worn ruts and find synonyms for everyday words, to delve into the shades of meanings each represented, and then to make sentences with them. Their eyes would roll, yet by turning this into a game not repeated too often, the exercise would become heated and filled with laughter: some words, as valid as they are, simply don’t ‘sound right’ to our ears anymore. Nonetheless, these paths of discovery helped them towards learning how to manipulate language to suit a particular purpose. You can doubtless imagine my joy as I recognised the gradual improvement in their choice of words when I marked their essays.

This, at last, brings me to rip, tear, and rent by way of example: they can all mean severing paper in some way.

To me rip carries the connotation of the severing action being performed with considerable emotion – such as when venting one’s anger or showing vehement disapproval. Rip carries an undertone of violence: Georgina was so disappointed in her poor result that she ripped up her test paper. She may even have gone further and ripped it to shreds. This is far more satisfying than merely crumpling the paper. Mind you, the word rip might also harbour uncontrolled emotion, such as ripping open the paper covering a gift – as young children tend to do, so keen are they to see what is hidden under the wrapping.

By contrast, to tear paper seems to be a more controlled and deliberate act. You might simply want to divide a sheet of paper in half by tearing it instead of cutting it. In order to tear the paper, your pull it apart by force. When seen in a negative sense, if someone tears a document, the act of destruction is a deliberate one as in: Harold tears up any drawing of his that doesn’t meet his specification – no matter how it is praised by others.

Rent is not a word I naturally apply to the perforation of paper; I associate it more readily with material. Yet, rent can also be used to describe the act of tearing.

Don’t get me started on why my copy of a thesaurus is so well thumbed.

A DISCOMBOBULATION

My father was fond of using the word ‘discombobulate’ when relating events that had happened during his working day: so-and-so was discombobulated by the change in the time of the shift, for example. Little did he know that the day would come when he would be disconcerted and confused by something he wasn’t even aware of happening at the time!

Let me give you some background to provide the context for his discombobulation. In our family home we had several framed watercolours painted by his aunt, May Taylor Morgan. My father, an orphan, came to southern Africa when he was seventeen years old and these paintings were sent on to him from England years after we had all been born. This is one of the two less colourful ones that I now have in my home. The caption was written by my father on the back of the frame:

Caernarvon: This shows Queen Eleanor’s Gate where the first Prince of Wales was shown to the public, The picture shows the old slate warehouses at low tide. This is a very true reproduction and was painted by May Taylor Morgan.

Also important to know is that my father was the Mine Captain and his stand-alone office was situated close to the mine shaft. The shift bosses would gather there before or after their underground shifts to give a verbal report or to discuss events that had taken place. On this particular Monday morning, the mine carpenter happened to be in my father’s office when the skip spewed out the miners. As was usual, it wasn’t long before my father’s office was filled with shift bosses, whose language usage would have proverbially turned the air blue.

The carpenter remained after the departure of the shift bosses and said quietly, “These men would not have used such dirty language had they known there was a lady present.”

My father looked around at the office with only the two of them present. “What lady?”

“She was standing behind your chair.” The carpenter went on to give a detailed description of the old woman who had stood there quietly. I can no longer recall the details, other than that she had very white hair. My father absorbed all of this and realised it could only have been his long-deceased Aunt May, who had lived in Caernarvon.

His discombobulation was still evident when he related this encounter over lunch. “It had to be Aunt May,” he explained. “She is the only person I know who looked like that!” Why would a woman who had died in Wales decades earlier appear in my father’s mine office in South Africa? Who can tell? The mine carpenter was not one to play jokes. “Besides,” my father insisted, “there is absolutely no way he could have known what she looked like and yet he described her to a T!”

Caernarvon: The old brick works by May Taylor Morgan.

My father noted in his unpublished memoir, A Brief History of the Currors that “she must have been rather shocked as she had picked a real ‘Blue Monday!’”

THE SNAIL

THE SNAIL – William Cowper (1731-1800)

To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all
                                                Together.

Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                                Of weather.

Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much
                                                Displeasure.

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                                Whole treasure.

Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                                The faster.

Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin’d)
If, finding it, he fails to find
                                                Its master.

This poem came to mind after seeing so many snails moving about the garden and in the streets after our recent rain – a change from coming across empty shells!

THREE UPLIFTING BOOKS

Among the many books I have read recently are these three that remained in a pile – clearly awaiting further attention before being put away. All three are worthy paying closer attention to.

Mark Forsyth’s The Horologicon is possibly one of the most delightful gifts I have received for a long time. I have always enjoyed words and find it fascinating to delve into the etymology of interesting words, so the idea of exploring the ‘lost words’ of the English language holds great appeal – so great an appeal that I couldn’t keep them to myself and ended up reading this book to my husband!

The day’s jaunt begins at 6 a.m. waking to an alarm clock and then checks in every hour of the day until midnight, when we make too much noise upon returning home before finally falling asleep. Why oh why have we lost words such as splashing our faces with a gowpen (a double handful) of water in the morning? Then there is the hour between one and two, called the amell, when we take time off from our labours to enjoy lunch. Once the sky obnubilates (darkens) we turn our minds to plans for the evening, which might include having supper, drinking, wooing and so on before stumbling home. If you enjoy words, this is an absorbing, light-hearted, and very informative read.

Having thoroughly enjoyed skipping through a day while discovering new words every hour, I needed no persuasion to borrow A Short History of Drunkenness by the same author.

What a treat! From the prehistory of drinking, we visit Sumerian bars, peep at Ancient Egypt, attend a Greek Symposium and drink with the Ancient Chinese. We explore the Bible, find out about the Roman Convivium, make our way through the Dark Ages, and go drinking in the Middle East. We then find out what the Viking Sumbl is and visit a Medieval Alehouse. Mark Forsyth tells us about the Aztecs, the Gin Craze, Australia, and takes us to a Wild West Saloon. We also visit Russia and learn about the Prohibition. This is another marvellous romp through the history of how people have over-imbibed from the Stone Age to the present – with plenty of read-aloud passages to entertain.

In a completely different vein comes the end of your life bookclub by Will Schwalbe.

This is a second-hand book which has languished near the bottom of my to-be-read basket since before Covid-19 reared its head and ruined our social lives. Even the bright golden affirmation that it is a The New York Times Bestseller didn’t move me for all of those months. I picked it up and returned it, turned my back on it – shunned it completely. Who wants to read about someone dying of pancreatic cancer when our entire world as we knew it was being turned upside down – or so I thought! Some books, I find, simply wait patiently until I am in the right frame of mind.

Of course it’s not about his mother dying – rather this simply forms the background to the focus of the book which is on the many books Schwalbe and his mother read and discussed during the period before she dies. It is a fascinating account of what they read, their differing views of books, and how each of these discussions led onto talking about some of the more difficult issues in their lives. As he puts it, he and his mother formed a sort of two-member book club during this time – and what a lively book club it turns out to be!

Apart from the books, both fiction and non-fiction, they read, there is an inspiring thread of the dignity with which his mother faced her illness: Mom’s appointments [for treatment sessions] were usually first thing in the morning – she liked to get them over and done with so she could get on with her day. Even when she was feeling “really not great”, Mom always took care with her appearance.

They argue about books, have different opinions about issues and deal with her having exhausted all the traditional chemotherapies – enough you might think to turn you off. Not a chance with these two: he points out that Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe we can all do better. The Appendix lists their reading material – it is satisfying to go through it to see what you might have read and to note from it what you would still like to read.

So, no fiction this time but three uplifting non-fiction choices to blow away any Covid-variation blues.

TAPHOPHILIA

I was introduced to cemeteries as interesting places to visit while I was still in primary school. My father had taken it upon himself to clear the bush encroaching on a chapel and cemetery situated not far from Sheba Gold Mine in the then Eastern Transvaal, where he was the Mine Captain. It was from seeing the graves of babies and children younger than I was that I learned about the scourge of malaria, while other graves informed me of the horror of a local train disaster.

It was in this half-forgotten cemetery that I became fascinated by the different epitaphs and shapes of gravestones; where I discovered my interest in the choice of symbols and biblical verses; where I learned something of the life expectancy in the late nineteenth century; and found interesting references to where people had come from – these were all things my father was happy to talk about.

Over the years I have discovered that there is much of historical significance to learn from visiting cemeteries, be it social, military, or related to families and religions. Should you spend any time there, you soon realise that cemeteries are, in a manner of speaking, outdoor museums that require you to look carefully – and possibly do later research – in order to interpret what you are seeing. My father was a keen amateur historian, who was particularly interested in the turbulent military history of his adopted country. As a result, many of our journeys were broken so that we could visit significant graves and monuments along the way.

I did not know then that during the years to come I would continue in this vein, as well as visiting various battle sites, with my husband. I also didn’t know that there is a word, tapophilia, to describe this interest in what old cemeteries have to offer. The word comes from the Greek taph (tomb) and philia (fondness or admiration). Sadly, many cemeteries in our platteland towns have been more or less abandoned either because of indifference by the local municipalities or simply because the towns are no longer thriving. Some, like the old cemetery in our town, are no longer safe to visit on one’s own although the aptly named New Cemetery is a different matter.

Of particular interest to me are the many symbols evident in older cemeteries especially. Angels are commonly regarded as the messengers of God who act as a guide to help the soul of the departed towards Heaven. Winged cherubs watch over the graves of babies and children to convey their innocence. The unbroken circle of a wreath represents everlasting life.

While the Celtic or Irish cross, taking the form of a cross within a circle, generally represents eternity.

A broken column indicates a life cut short; a memorial to the death of someone who died young or in the prime of life, before reaching old age.

Obelisks, on the other hand, apparently became popular after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1801.This one also depicts the commonly used Masonic symbol of the compass and square, which represent faith and reason.

Having found the word, tapophilia, and given my interest in cemeteries, the depiction of symbols and the history reflected by gravestones, I realise I must be a taphophile.