MISS MUTCH.

Back in 1947, in a letter to Edward Weeks, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, which was publishing a piece he’d written on Hollywood, Raymond Chandler included a message to be passed on to the copy editor (“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split…”). The copy editor in question turned out to be a woman named Margaret Mutch; she apparently wrote him back, inspiring him to produce the very enjoyable “Lines to a Lady With an Unsplit Infinitive” (“Miss Margaret Mutch she raised her crutch/ With a wild Bostonian cry.// ‘Though you went to Yale, your grammar is frail,’/ She snarled as she jabbed his eye…”). You can read both missives in full at Letters of Note, and I hope you will. (Thanks, Zhoen!)

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    Definitely worth reading! the letter, and the poem.

  2. Since it’s a slow day at the hattery I’ll mention something that just struck me. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler went to the same school, Dulwich College, a minor public school in south London. Wodehouse was seven years older, so they probably never met. Dulwich College adjoins the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a museum with a magnificent collection of 17-18C. minor paintings by the likes of Rembrandt, Poussin & Rubens.
    There, that was almost on topic.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    Sounds like Dulwich was anything but dull.

  4. Was there a witch?

  5. Bathrobe says:

    And is it pronounced Dull-witch, Dullich or Dullidge?

  6. It’s pronounced Dullich.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    A dozen or more years ago I had a day off during a lengthy business trip to London and made it out to Dulwich to look at the pictures, which were quite nice. Maybe the school could sponsor a contest to rewrite Wodehouse stories in Chandler’s prose style and/or vice versa?

  8. It’s pronounced Dullich
    In which case, it’s more appropriate to ask, “Does it give you an itch, dull or otherwise?”

  9. Pronunciation and Miss Mutch: how do you pronounce “crotch”? It was ‘crutch’ when I wazaboy.

  10. I love J W Brewer’s suggestion. Apparently Arthur Herman Gilkes had a lot to do with both writers.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8784096.stm
    You are welcome, Hat.

  11. MISS MUTCH
    Has anyone done a post on the different US & UK meanings of mulch? It’s one of those words like ‘moot’, except no one really cares (apart from me and five or six gardeners).

  12. Has anyone done a post on the different US & UK meanings of mulch?
    Color me confused. The OED (Third edition, March 2003) defines it thus:

    Partly rotted plant material, etc.; (Hort.) loose material consisting of straw, decaying leaves, shredded cuttings and bark, etc., spread on soil or around or over a plant to provide insulation, protect from desiccation, and deter weeds. Also: textile or other artificial material used for the same purpose.

    That’s exactly what it means to me, and to Yanks in general, judging by the American Heritage Dictionary (“A protective covering, usually of organic matter such as leaves, straw, or peat, placed around plants to prevent the evaporation of moisture, the freezing of roots, and the growth of weeds”) and M-W (“a protective covering (as of sawdust, compost, or paper) spread or left on the ground to reduce evaporation, maintain even soil temperature, prevent erosion, control weeds, enrich the soil, or keep fruit (as strawberries) clean”).

  13. Hmm. Never mind about that. I’m very sorry I wasted your time. I ought at least to have done the research myself.
    *Goes for nap at bottom of garden.*

  14. Bottom of garden. Now that‘s a UK/US difference. To my ears it sounds like you’re burying yourself in the soil of the garden.

  15. Yes, when Kron wakes I hope he’ll explain how to tell which part of the garden is the top. I’ve probably been in danger of falling for years without knowing it.

  16. I think the bottom of the garden may be the end away from the house. English novels of a certain era refer to houses that are built “on rising ground”. But how would you know the difference between rising and falling ground? Maybe if you accidentally built the house on falling ground the bottom of the garden would be at the wrong place.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    the bottom of the garden
    In French, le fond means ‘the bottom’ or ‘the very end’ of something which has a definite limit, considered either vertically (down, as in a bottle, a well, a mine shaft, etc) or horizontally (as in a garden, a courtyard, a large room, a closet, etc). In talking about a cave, for instance, le fond could be ambiguous about the structure of the cave: mostly vertical, mostly horizontal, or some of both.
    rising or falling ground
    I guess you are on “rising ground” when you are looking towards the higher ground where the house is (to be) built, higher than the road or other point of reference, and in any case higher than any body of water in order to avoid flooding. Building a house on “falling ground” (again depending on your point of reference) would seem to be foolish or at least unfortunate, rather than accidental. Besides, you would not have much of a view. But let our resident architect tell us.

  18. In English, fundus is similarly applied to the point furthest from the entrance of a vessel, but only in medical jargon. Notably, the fundus of the stomach is the region above the attachment point of the small intestine. As it happens, this is the top of the stomach; gases collect there. Other organs with a fundus are the gallbladder (top), the uterus (top), the eye (back), the bladder (back/bottom), and the brain (I’m not sure where).

  19. I didn’t make it up: There are fairies at the bottom of our garden. Our garden slopes quite steeply, and the bottom is what boulders, children and wheelbarrows roll towards. When I was a small child our garden was as flat as a pool table, but it formed a long rectangle with the house at one end; so it was clear to me where the bottom was (when you lost something it usually showed up there). I suppose a flat, circular garden with its house at the centre wouldn’t have a bottom. You wouldn’t say that a Vaux or Versailles had anything at the bottom of the garden, because the view down the major axis is of a body of water that stretches to the horizon.

  20. You can build at the bottom of a slope. We once designed a house like that, next to a lake. You have to make sure runoff water drains around the house and not through it, of course. We did a building in Hamburg that was next to a canal. It had two levels of parking, one below water level. There were watertight emergency doors, and some pumps, in case the water overflowed. Buildings like that often set their foundations on top of piles – poles of wood or concrete that resist the building settling (sinking) into the mud.

  21. It may have been this mulch, from the OED, (it’s really my mother who complains about the difference in usage):
    Half-rotten straw; in Gardening, a mixture of wet straw, leaves, loose earth, etc., spread on the ground to protect the roots of newly planted trees, etc.
       1657 S. Purchas Pol. Flying-Ins. ix. 114 Then make a smoak of mulch and wet straw. 1674–91 Ray S. & E.C. Words 107 Mulch; Straw half rotten.    1706 London & Wise Retir’d Gard. I. ii. ii. 110 We put in a little short Mulsh upon the Root.    1763 Mills Pract. Husb. IV. 367 Laying a little heap of haulm, straw, or any kind of mulch, round the stem of each vine.    1891 T. Hardy Tess xvii, His boots were clogged with the mulch of the yard.
    I was interested to see ‘haulm’. Halm is the Norwegian word for straw.

  22. Interesting. That’s the same entry, but from the first edition (originally published in 1908). Which usage does your mother complain about?

  23. She never complained, she just found it confusing when she moved to the US. But as you see I’m a bit confused about what was confusing. I’ll have to ask her.

  24. It seems to me that mulch can mean either (1) decomposed plant material or (2) something you spread on your garden to help the plants by (a) retaining moisture in the soil or (b) curtailing the growth of weeds. Sometimes it’s used to mean decomposed plant material, even if this is not being used in a garden. Other times it’s used to mean anything at all that is spread in the garden bed for such purposes, even something like sheets of porous black plastic. Frequently it refers to something that is both (1) and (2).

  25. Surely decomposed plant material is compost. Mulch is things that only decompose very slowly, like chopped-up twigs, bark and leaves. I know it says so, but I’d find it hard to call a sheet of black plastic “mulch” or anything except “a sheet of black plastic”.

  26. Well, I think of compost as decomposed plant material that you put in your garden to add nutrients to the soil. This can go against (2b) above; what if the weeds get the (dande)lion’s share of the nutritional benefit?
    Sometimes we gather eelgrass from the tide line and let it sit around for a while to rinse some salt out, then put it on/in the garden as an attractive-looking silvery mulch. Or if we find that it’s sat around long enough to become slimy and starting to really fall apart, we may mix it in with some other things that we have been composting, and use it as a soil additive. I think that there is some fuzzy thinking of the anything-associated-with-our-great-mother-the-sea-must-be-a-good-thing variety as well as the nagging question of whether the mulch is feeding the weeds.

  27. It sounds lovely, I’ll look up eelgrass. My goddaughter was telling me the other day that I ought to start eating seaweed (from a shop, not straight from the fjord). Any old kind would do, she said.
    As far as I can gather, compost is less important for nutrients than it is for aerating the soil. Once I started adding fertilizer for nutrients everything grew twice as bushy as it had before and we got lots more fruit & berries. However, the runoff is bad for the environment and fertilizer’s very expensive. The best thing is to keep hens (or cows if you’ve got room) and mix the shit into the compost (horseshit isn’t supposed to be very nutritious, goat droppings are fair to middling).

  28. Eelgrass may refer to:
      Zostera, marine eelgrass
      Vallisneria, freshwater eelgrass
    I presume we’re talking about the former.

  29. Marine, yes. Hey, look: from the Wiki article on Zostera:
    The Seri language has many words related to eelgrass and eelgrass-harvesting. The month of April is called xnoois ihaat iizax, literally “the month when the eelgrass seed is mature”.

  30. Xnoois ihaat iizax is the cruelest month, breeding
    Eelgrass out of the dead land…

  31. That’s T.S. Eeliot.

  32. Maybe the school could sponsor a contest to rewrite Wodehouse stories in Chandler’s prose style and/or vice versa?
    They’re pretty close already. Compare “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window” and “she had a laugh like a troop of cavalry charging over a tin bridge”…

  33. I wouldn’t say they are very close at all: more like they touch at certain points along the range of narrative voices. But this is just my subjective impression.

  34. John’s right, but it’s quite obvious which is which, so it’s not just subjective.

  35. I think we should hold a contest to rewrite (extracts from) Wodehouse stories in Chandler’s prose style and/or vice versa.

  36. Or how about Mickey Spillane’s?
    “In there was my butler lying on the floor dead. The body. Yesterday it was Jeeves, the guy that straightened my tie through years of warfare in the stinking slime of London society. Jeeves, the guy who had fed me eggs and bacon when I needed it and poured me restorative libations more times than I could count. Now he looked like something my Aunt Agatha had chewed up and thrown out….”

Speak Your Mind

*