AMEISES.

I’ve found a nut too tough for me to crack, and naturally I’m tossing it in the direction of the Varied Reader. Frequent commenter (and slayer of prescriptivist dragons) jamessal sent me a quote from Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (which changed my life when I read it thirty years ago, and helped make me the Languagehat you see before you); I’ll provide the full context from page 116. Kenner has been explaining the conundrum of the hapax noigandres in an Arnaut Daniel poem (“Levy” is Emil L. Lévy, 1855-1918, the German philologist):

And some years before the young American’s visit, Levy had solved the problem, divining (after six months, the Canto bids us realize) that the second part of noigandres must be a form of gandir (protect, ward off); then enoi is cognate with modern French ennui; and the word comes apart neatly into d’enoi gandres, ward off ennui, and the line reads,

e jois lo grans, e l’olors d’enoi gandres

—“And joy is its seed, and its smell banishes sadness.” He entered this triumphant emendation, complete with Arnaut’s reconstructed line, under gandir in his great Provenzalisches Supplement-Wörterbuch, page 25, Vol. IV (G-L), 1904, where it would have eluded Pennsylvania inquirers await for the volume that should treat of N. But one member of Prof. Rennet’s seminar was rewarded with the solution he went to Freiburg for (we are not to suppose that Levy spoke that day only of his six months’ bafflement); and Pound’s text and final translation, first published in Instigations, concur with Lavaud’s 1910 edition (which he cites) in following Levy’s reading:

… Bestir my heart to put my song in sheen
T’equal that flower which hath such properties,
It seeds in joy, bears love, and pain ameises.

So all is clear (although apparently modern editions of Daniel reconstruct the line slightly differently—James J. Wilhelm’s The Poetry of Arnaut Daniel has “e l’olors d’enuo[c] ga[i]ndres”), but Kenner has left us with a conundrum of his own: what the hell is “ameises”? There’s no “ameise” in the OED or in any other dictionary I have access to, I can’t find an Old English word Pound might have extrapolated it from, and no Greek or Latin roots come to mind that might explain it. Kenner must have tried looking it up himself; I can’t decide whether he left it as an exercise for the reader or whether he simply couldn’t be bothered to investigate that particular detour, but it’s driving me nuts (as the pirate with the steering wheel sticking out of his pants told the bartender); if anyone has any plausible theories, let’s hear ’em.


In my googling, I discovered that Carroll F. Terrell’s A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound also dodges the issue, on page 81: “Pound does not commit himself to any translation but in effect lets the reader devise his own. But in his own translation of the song [Instigations], he wrote ‘and pain ameises.'” Yes, yes he did, and you’re not helping.
Update. Mystery solved! MMcM came up with it; it’s an alternate spelling of amese ‘To appease, calm, render mild; to moderate, pacify’ from OFr. amesir, amaisir, from a reconstructed Med. L. *admitiare, based on Latin mītis ‘mild.’ I will sleep better tonight.

Comments

  1. Dunno. This word ameises me–maybe it ameises the pain?

  2. and no Greek or Latin roots come to mind that might explain it
    I’m assuming that includes αμεις which according to Liddell-Scott is a variant of ευρησεις < ευρισκω = “to find”.
    Hm, but there’s also αμειρω < αμερδω = “to bereave”. Now to explain how that ameir- turned into ameis-…

  3. And then there’s (at least according to the 1968 Oxford Latin Dictionary , p. 118) āmitto (-ittere, -īsī, -issum) meaning, among other things, “to let go of one’s hold, release; to part with possessions; to let fall, shed, drop; to give up, abandon” with two derivations āmissiō = “the fact of losing, deprivation, loss” and amissus = ditto.

  4. And how about Greek μειων – less – could that become ‘ameises’, meaning ‘lessens’?

  5. Could it be a variant of ‘amaze’, eg. in OED sense 2, to perplex? (‘amase’, at least, is listed as a spelling variant.) Amittere is tantalisingly close in meaning, but I don’t really see how you get ameises from that either.

  6. tacet,
    there is a verb μειόω = “to lessen” and, in passive, “become smaller”. Someone with a better grasp of Greek conjugation should answer the question of whether there is a form at least close to “(a)meise(s)”.

  7. It certainly couldn’t grow an initial-alpha: the best you could do would be an initial-eta. Pound wouldn’t have made this mistake; I’m sure he can’t have been thinking of Greek.

  8. Conrad,
    Amittere is tantalisingly close in meaning, but I don’t really see how you get ameises from that either.
    Maybe via perfect or one of the nouns?

  9. Conrad – of course, you’re absolutely right, adding an initial alpha couldn’t be Greek. But mei- (small) is an Indo-European root, and finds its way into, for example, German titmouse (Meise). The a- prefix would work in English. bulbul – don’t think mitto would ever gain an -e-. The perfect is mīsi.

  10. tacet,
    don’t think mitto would ever gain an -e-. The perfect is mīsi
    āmīsī, at least according to the dictionary. I’m quite sure it wouldn’t take on an [e] in Latin, but we’re talking about a borrowing into English here, so almost anything goes. I’m assuming it’s not an [e] add, but rather a new diphtong. Then how about [eɪ̯] < [aɪ̯] < [ī]? All of that not necessarily purely in terms of any vowel shift, mind you, but also including dialectal and orthographic variations

  11. I’m guessing a typo of some sort. Though I’ve spent some thought on what it might be and come up empty. I haven’t been able to find the verse online (except for more quotations of “and pain ameises” that make me suspect no one else understands it either :->) Is there a rhyme scheme to the translation to help us out?

  12. There aren’t any regular English etymological processes that’ll give -mei-, are there? Things like meiosis are self-consciously Greek.
    I’m inclined to think that what we’d expect to find as amises fits the sense pretty well.
    (I half expected to find references to “Victorian poetry reading hall” here, because of Ameisen.)

  13. I’m guessing a typo of some sort. Though I’ve spent some thought on what it might be and come up empty.
    Yes, I went through the same process and came up empty.
    Interesting suggestions, all!

  14. Skeat says amese is sometimes ameise.

  15. John Emerson says:

    Maybe Pound was fucking with y’all — from beyond the grave!

  16. John Emerson says:

    Maybe Pound was fucking with y’all — from beyond the grave!

  17. My first reaction was that the “a-” was a poetical prefix, put in for the sake of the meter (like ‘we’ll go no more a-roving’) and the word to be sought is meise(s).
    Googling meises brings up mostly references to the Yiddish phrase bubbe-meiseh(meises), in which the second half derives from the word “maaseh” meaning story or tale. There’s also a German Jewish chess master named Jacques Meises who left Germany because of the Nazis and died in the 1950s, and apparently indulged in some wild plays that did not necessarily pan out for him, and there is this recipe for saltines with peanut butter, in which meises is listed as the third ingredient. But it’s in a language which I don’t recognize, much less understand (I’m guessing Indonesian because of the next instance on the list), with some English words thrown in to complicate things.
    http://gloverm.multiply.com/recipes/item/74/Saltine_Crackers_with_Peanut_Butter. The picture on the page makes meises seem to be some sort of chocolate sprinkles used for cakes and cookies. There’s a website for an Indonesian speciality store which lists several entries for the item “meises” that also look like chocolate sprinkles: http://indomart.us/catalog/index.php?cPath=32 Given the brand names involved, the term may actually be Dutch in origin and not Indonesian. And finally there’s a Catalunyan using the phrase “to the meises” in the sense of “to the max”.
    As for Meise, Wiktionary says it’s the German name for the bird Anglophones call “tit”. It’s also the name of a town in Flemish Brabant where Empress Charlotte of Mexico (Maximilian’s widow) spent her last years and now the site of Belgium’s National Botanical Garden.
    There is also a German ornithologist named Wilhelm Meise who died in 2002 three weeks shy of his 101st birthday, whose various accomplishments included compiling all the bird species discovered in the years 1920-38 (no indication if the tit was one of them).
    Of course there must have been other people named Meise/Meises who may have been unknown to Google but known to Pound.
    Faced with that, I can speculate that Pound meant the phrase to mean one of the following:
    “makes pain into a story”
    “makes pain into a bird”
    “makes pain into a chocolate cake decoration”
    I would suppose that the first option would probably fit the context best, but it’s mildly ironic that Pound would have made use of a word derived from Hebrew via Yiddish.
    And if this is all completely bosh, at least I had fun googling stuff I didn’t know before.

  18. Previous comment was written before seeing MMcM’s comment, which sounds like the solution to me.

  19. Yes, MMcM must be right. Damn.

  20. Ameise (pl. Ameisen) is German for “ant”. It’s not cognate to Meise (tit). May I recommend some Vorsprung durch Technik? 🙂

  21. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    I’m guessing a typo of some sort.
    My kinda guy.

  22. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    I’m guessing a typo of some sort.
    My kinda guy.

  23. Ameise in German means “ant”. Joyce , in Work in Progress, combines it with the English amazing to coin the adjective ameising, meaning the wonder inspired by an ant.” (Jorge Luis Borges, review of Finnegans Wake, 1939)
    So maybe an ant is inspiring pain with wonder (perhaps the same creature which later appears in ”The Cantos”: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world”).

  24. I think it’s the Old French word amesir or amaiser, which appears in English as amese (and is in the OED as such). Meaning “to calm, pacify”. An i could conceivably have found its way in there from some pseudo-etymological motive.

  25. MMcM is definitely right (as of course is Widsith): it has to be amese ‘To appease, calm, render mild; to moderate, pacify’ from OFr. amesir, amaisir, from a reconstructed Med. L. *admitiare, based on Latin mītis ‘mild.’ I knew y’all would come up with the answer!

  26. Thanks all!

  27. marie-lucie says:

    … the second part of noigandres must be a form of gandir (protect, ward off); then enoi is cognate with modern French ennui ; and the word comes apart neatly into d’enoi gandres , ward off ennui, and the line reads, e jois lo grans, e l’olors d’enoi gandres. —“And joy is its seed, and its smell banishes sadness.”
    A look at the whole poem (see link above) shows that each stanza ends in a word ending in -andres, as in Alixandres, a NOUN. A final -s inherited from Latin -us was the nominative (subject) masculine singular ending in Old French and shows up in the medieval Occitan of the poem as well (as in jois, lo grans and l’olors). In a verb, the ending -s would be the second (and sometimes first) person singular ending, never a third person. There is no way that gandres is a form of the verb gandir, which would have gandit as its third person singulat form. The noun gandre(s)” must be RELATED to the verb gandir, it cannot be a FORM of that verb.
    I agree with the translation given in the link: And joy the seed, and the scent a shield against sadness

  28. as the pirate with the steering wheel sticking out of his pants told the bartender

    Just what is it with that joke? Was it featured somewhere recently? (Evil Inc. is not for the loathers of puns.)
    Didn’t get to the bookshop today, by the way, so I’m still open for requests.

  29. I’ve known the joke for a while and never heard of Evil Inc., so I’m voting for coincidence.

  30. mollymooly says:

    In Ireland there’s no pirate in that joke!

  31. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    It’s a good joke, I’ve been thinking about it all day.

  32. Truly, MMcM’s kung-fu is the strongest. I bow to you, 师傅.
    Sili,
    I’d be much obliged if you could look for a reasonably recent grammar and perhaps for something on the history of Danish.

  33. @ bulbul
    Didn’t find a grammar and the ones we have at the school library are obviously short and somewhat prescriptive (I suspect). I’m afraid I don’t know anything about what’s even available. I’ll have another gander soon. Still left with two bags, though …
    Found:
    Dansk til eksamen – a collection of essays about the teaching of Danish. Edited by an Aage Jørgensen.
    Det er korrekt – about Danish orthography published on the occasion of the fifty year anniversary of the 1948 reform (that introduced “å” and did away with the conjunctive). Edited by Jørn Lund and Erik Hansen (I think …).
    Det danske Sprogs Historie by Verner Dahlerup.
    Vort danske Modersmål by Johannes Brøndum-Nielsen.
    Got a little something for our esteemed host too.
    And a few things for myself as well. Not all of them in LT yet.

  34. Sili,
    thanks for thinking of me. Don’t worry about the grammar and read your email 🙂

  35. Done! And I don’t mind ‘parting with it’. I’m pretty sure the Old English will keep me occupied for years to come (as is my attempt to recollect some of all the maths I once took). I’ll prolly have a quick look through it over the weekend and then defer the posting for a bit in case I’m hooked.
    Happy to help!
    (And if dottore Hat would like to share his address in time for Crimbo, I’d be much obliged.)

  36. David Marjanović says:

    αμερδω

    J’emmerde! :^)

    Ameise (pl. Ameisen) is German for “ant”. It’s not cognate to Meise (tit).

    Too bad for the joke: How does an ant get across the river? She throws the a away and flies across…

    and did away with the conjunctive

    Wow. Just… wow.
    What an attitude to language…

  37. Actually – it didn’t. It only changed the spelling of a few of the perfective modals to bring them into line with the pronunciation (by then identical to the infinitive). We can still make irrealis constructions, but like all other bits of Danish grammar they’re dependent of analysis rather than synthesis.

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