Monday, August 3, 2020

More New Words

Although, to be fair, this post should really be title Old Words Which Are New To Me.

When I was in elementary school, the kids called me The Human Dictionary.  Daddooooo and G'ma were never afraid to use a 5 syllable word when a 2 syllable word would suffice.  They assumed that I would understand, either from the context or, more frequently, from the dictionary.

They had a gigantic Webster's Unabridged, always out and available, its onion skin pages full of adjectives and nouns and synonyms and explanations.  There were flags of countries that no longer exist.  There was a definition of whore when Cleopatra was in the theatres and my down the street neighbor told me that's what she was and I should ask my mom about it.  Before I took that step, though, I went to the dictionary.... where I was left flumoxed and confused as a 9 year old in the middle of the 20th century shold have been. 

Still, I remember that I went there first.  

So when JannyLou loaned me her copy of Bruce Holsinger's Innovation of Fire, I was emotionally perpared to dig in.  Big words, unusual words, arcane words - they don't bother me, or so I thought.  But 10 pages into the novel I realized two things:  I wanted to start with the first book in the series, and I needed a dictionary close at hand.

The library had a downloadable ebook available, so my Kindle and I settled in with A Burnable Book, Holsinger's tale of skulduggery in the 14th century.  Geoffrey Chaucer and his friend John Gower write poetry and play politics and engage in subterfuge while Holsinger plunges the reader head first into the original town and gown struggles between the clergy and the Parliament and the upper and lower classes.  

And head first into language oterwise unencountered in the modern world.  Holsinger understands the confusion, and brings it to the forefront in the first episode.  A young maudlyn (a whore) comes upon
A square of silk, the embroidery dense and loud..... Here is a language she reads: of splits and underside couching, of pulled thread and chain stitch, an occulted story told in thread...
I had a vague sense of what she was seeing, so I skipped looking up splits and couching.  But then Part i started, and with it a calendar, Day XV before the Kalends of April to the Ides of April, 8 Richard II (18 March -13 April, 1385).  Turns out that March, May, July and October are the months when the ides fall on the 15th (thank you Julius Caesar for teaching us about that).  Otherwise, it's the 13th, the day roughly in the middle of the month and from which other dates are counted.  The Kalends is the first day of the month.  Apparently, each King marked the passing years of his reign (cf 8 Richard II); I thought I was being clever by renaming this year Pandemic '01 but it seems that British royalty got there first.

Holsinger pens a careful recreation of London, Southwark, Westminster, Greenwich and the lands beyod.  I like maps, and his book could surely have used one.  But he takes the reader through alleys and over bridges and carefully tells us whether we are turning right or left at each juncture.  His prose is powerful; you can smell the stink of the Long Dropper ( a privy atop the Thames, with 3 holes, all too small for a grown man's body, and a looooooong drop before the plop) and feel the blade of the knife as it pierces the flesh.  

But I didn't know about the gong farmers, who shoveled the shit out of the river and onto barges to be floated or carted further away.

By the end of the second book, I knew about the barbican (the outer defense of a castle or walled city, especially a double tower above a gate or drawbridge) because I had to figure out where a character was waiting and who could see her and why it was a big deal to be let inside.  

I learned that curfew was strictly monitored, and that hue and cry was exactly that.  When a murder occured in the streets, our hero began shouting to raise the hue and cry!  A murder! nd all the windows opened and calls for the sheriff rang out.  911 was more personal then.

I didn't know that carl was a peasant or man of low birth.  I didn't know that hermits lodged in the towers surrounding the gates of the City of London.  I didn't know that a lozenge was a charge in the shape of a solid diamond, in particular one on which the arms of an unmarried or widowed woman are displayed.  Heraldry was big in the 14th century; a legal battle over who can have what on his bends (the colorful band denoting rank and name) swirls in and around the books.  

There was more, much much more.  The first book, on the Kindle, was easier to parse.  The dictionary was available at the touch of my finger.  For the second, physcial book, I had to have my phone by my side.  G'ma's dictionary is in Little Cuter's house, mine were on my shelves, and my phone was smaller and quicker.  

Quite a change from the mid-1300's.  I am left wondering what devices will be used to decipher Maus 700 years from now.

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