I’m reading Kevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone, which jamessal gave me for Christmas, and enjoying it greatly — it’s one of those books whose language is so lively and irrepressible you want to read whole chunks aloud (which I do, to my wife, the cats, or failing an audience myself). It’s about John Lennon (though he is referred to only as “John”), and the passage I’m now reading describes his life in the Dakota in the late ’70s:
The yeast and warmth of the kitchen on a cold winter day with the city under its heaps of dirty snow outside — he’s cosy as a bastard in the womb. He is that happy he gurns and sings.
Naturally, I looked up the unfamiliar verb “gurn,” only to discover its sense isn’t as easy to pin down as I might have hoped. The OED (entry from 1899) says “To show the teeth in rage, pain, disappointment, etc.; to snarl as a dog; to complain persistently; to be fretful or peevish. Also to girn at. Now only north. and Sc.” (The etymology says it’s a variant of grin.) My Concise Oxford (12th ed., 2011) says: “1 Brit. pull a grotesque face. 2 (usu girn) chiefly Scottish & Irish complain peevishly.” M-W and AHD don’t have it, since it’s not American. So I turn to the Varied Reader: are you familiar with this word, and if so, how do you understand it in this passage? Is he making a face, complaining peevishly, or what? It’s reasonably clear that “that happy he gurns” is ironic, especially since later we get “He is that happy he wants to Scream.”