VOLITARY.

Still reading Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (see here and here), I’ve come across a word that is vanishingly rare—so rare, indeed, that it’s not in the OED (though it will presumably be added when the third edition reaches V). Hollinghurst’s sentence is “I have forgotten the volume, but will always remember the sentence: ‘Its want of volitary powers led inevitably to its extirpation,’ the subject being, I believe, the Giant Moa.” Needless to say, I looked up the odd word (derived from Latin volito ‘to fly,’ though there is no Latin volitarius), and on not finding it I formulated a tentative hypothesis that he had made it up. But of course I didn’t stop there, and a Google Books search quickly turned up what must be his source, from Joel Samuel Polack‘s 1838 New Zealand; Being a Narrative of Travels and Adventures during a Residence in that Country between the Years 1831 and 1837 Vol. I, p. 346: “Many of these petrifactions had been the ossified parts of birds, that are at present (as far as is known) extinct in these islands, whose probable tameness, or want of volitary powers; caused them to be early extirpated by a people, driven by both hunger and superstition (either reason is quite sufficient in its way) to rid themselves of their presence.”
But what really delighted me was finding this further hit for the word in a review of Polack’s book:

We have already commended the vivacity and general truth of Mr. Polack’s volumes. His language is occasionally extremely ambitious, and he coins words with a boldness which will scare not a few of his readers. He talks of hederaceous, oerementous, and tophaceous soils; of volitary birds, subsultive fishes, — nay, he rivals the inimitable Mrs. Malaprop herself; and describes a native chief “who squinted with an obloquy of vision, little short of caricature.” Such faults, however, are easily pardoned in one who has a brisk flow of spirits.

The word is actually attested earlier (e.g., in The Works of Ezekiel Hopkins, Arranged and Revised, with a Life of the Author, by J. Pratt [1809], p. 468: “if a vain thought, that is such a fleeting and volitary thing, breathes a kind of contagion and taint upon the heart…”), but it’s something that anyone with a knowledge of Latin and a brisk flow of spirits might come up with, regardless of prior art.

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    anyone with a knowledge of Latin and a brisk flow of spirits
    I think this applies to quite a few Hatters, as well as to Mr Hat himself. And “thankfully” (see other thread), you don’t need to know Latin to have “a brisk flow of spirits”. I love the phrase. May your spirits ever briskly flow!

  2. You seem to have lapped me, Hat; I’m only in the middle of section 3, in part because I’ve been reading other books (an apparently antiquated introduction to syntax and a hopefully not antiquated introduction to Old English), in part because I have a copy-editing job that’s turned out to be much more a of pain in the ass than anticipated (guess the source), and in part because of stuff I’d rather not talk about in public; but yes, the writing continues to kick ass. I’m wondering whether you stopped to savor the moment when the new bank teller, Paul, doesn’t recognize an apparently old customer: “He felt the farmer, George Hethersedge, was treating him as a bit of a fool for never having seen him before. He seemed to suggest he would look back on this moment of ignorance with rueful embarrassment.” Having been on both sides of the counter (though not in a bank), I enjoyed seeing it described just right.
    Ian McEwan has a short story in current New Yorker. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be part of his next novel, although either he or Deborah Treisman (Nykr fiction editor) made it work as a short story. It’s good, though while reading it I couldn’t help notice how much better Hollinghurst’s prose is. McEwan has recently been developing a word choice problem; they’re more specific and accurate than ever but, somehow correspondingly, less evocative. He seems, strangely for an author of his stature — or not so strangely, come to think of it — insecure.

  3. “I have forgotten the volume, but will always remember the sentence: ‘Its want of volitary powers led inevitably to its extirpation,’ the subject being, I believe, the Giant Moa.”
    I love this, and I wonder why there’s no demand for volitary.
    I couldn’t help notice how much better Hollinghurst’s prose is. McEwan has recently been developing a word choice problem; they’re more specific and accurate than ever but, somehow correspondingly, less evocative.
    Jim, would you give an example from McEwan’s story, please.

  4. dearieme says:

    Who’ll be the first to refer to volitary swine?

  5. Well done!

  6. This reminds me of Quine’s wonderful verb nolitessituriesco ‘I am not beginning to want to flutter hard’. Though as Nick Nicholas says, n- for v- is not really productive. However that may be, volito is the frequentative of volo ‘fly’, and really means ‘fly to and fro, flit about, flutter’ (thus Lewis and Short)
    I’ll start getting the rust off the broadswords (and batleths) now.

  7. jamessal says:

    Jim, would you give an example from McEwan’s story, please.
    Easier said than done. McEwan’s an excellent writer, and I don’t have time right now to reread the whole story, to find every little phrase that disappointed. Any criticism comes from a place of high expectations. Here’s something I didn’t love, though:

    That evening, he cooked up a big pan of what he preferred to call porcini, with olive oil, pepper, salt, and pancetta, and we ate them with grilled polenta, salad, and red wine, a Barolo. This was exotic food in England in the seventies. I remember everything—the scrubbed pine table with dented legs of faded duck-egg blue, the wide faience bowl of slippery cèpes, the disk of polenta beaming like a miniature sun from a pale-green plate with a cracked glaze, the dusty black bottle of wine, the peppery rugola in a chipped white bowl, and Tony making the dressing in seconds, tipping oil and squeezing half a lemon in his fist even, so it seemed, as he carried the salad to the table. (My mother concocted her dressings at eye level, like an industrial chemist.) Tony and I ate many similar meals at that table, but this one can stand in for the rest. What simplicity, what taste, what a man of the world! That night, the wind was up, and the bough of an ash thumped and scraped across the thatched roof.

    This is an important scene, a scene that he explicitly says stands for many other scenes, and yet he finds no technique to draw us in better than to cram it full of ho-hum details. He practically apologizes for it: “I remember everything.” Then there’s the fact that polenta beams like the sun in every other issue of Saveur, that all arugula is peppery (and is always described as peppery), and that “duck-egg blue” is a faux literary cliche (it gets over 7000 Google hits). Also the bough that thumped and scraped the roof — I’m sorry, the thatched roof — of course isn’t the bough of a tree; it’s the bough of an ash: there isn’t a single undifferentiated tree in the whole story. No cars are just cars; no walkways are just walkways. We get make and model and method of construction in a manner that begins to seem simply habitual, to have only the most straightforward and boring relation to the story being told.
    I hope that helps give a sense of where I’m coming from, even though, honestly, my disappointment may have carried over a bit from Solar and Saturday. I’ll skim for more later.

  8. Well, I suppose it’s got to do with whether you like those details or not. I do, though I haven’t read the whole story, and abjure (as a good Myersian) the whole idea of judging fiction by its sentences. But in general the more “unnecessary” details there are in such a paragraph, the more real it seems to me.

  9. jamessal says:

    I do… abjure (as a good Myersian) the whole idea of judging fiction by its sentences.
    Would that be a B.R. Myersian? Oh dear, I’m not a fan. I’m more of a John Gardnerian (albeit one who can admit that On Moral Fiction was more lame than not), and as such I’d argue that it’s the job of the fiction writer to weave dreams, to pull readers into those dreams, and to keep those dreams going as long as possible; and that bad sentences — those that lack euphony or embrace cliches or commit any number of other sins — pull readers right out of the dream: and so, judging fiction by its sentences, though not the only criterion available, is certainly a legitimate one. “Duck-egg blue,” to describe anything, will wrench me out of a story as fast as “mocha” skin or hair or eyes.
    But in general the more “unnecessary” details there are in such a paragraph, the more real it seems to me.
    Really? The more the better, with no discrimination involved? My problem with the story wasn’t that it contained a lot of detail — I’m as a big a fan of detail as anyone. My problem was that I had trouble finding a noun without a modifier nearby, that the details felt almost obligatory. Some of them also seemed pretty technical, with no apparent reason for such words reeking of the lamp (again, this may be carry-over criticism from some of his recent novels). McEwan has a vast education; he knows more science than any writer I can think of other than Richard Powers. But he doesn’t seem to recognize that there are important choices for a writer to make when describing something — that if, for example, a character is struck near a certain bone, even if you, the author, happen to be an ace anatomist and know the name of that bone, it might be more evocative to describe that part of the body in some way other than its relation to that obscure bone. You can imagine similar examples involving architecture and landscape. For McEwan, it seems — at least of late — the more technical the word, the more accurate, the better.

  10. This Myers? Yeah, I’m not a fan either. He has a point, but he makes it way too broadly, the fault of all such manifestos. The sentence is the building block of prose, and I don’t trust a writer who can’t produce a succession of good, convincing sentences.
    reeking of the lamp
    I believe you mean “reeking of the Bruno Scissor Arm Pharmacy Sconce by Robert Abbey.” Know your audience!

  11. jamessal says:

    Nice one.

  12. jamessal says:

    He has a point
    And he does call out some writers who deserve it: Denis Johnson, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, even Don DeLillo. But to not admit that DeLillo is enormously talented, even if all his books aren’t great or even good… well, Hat already said it: Myers makes his point too broadly.

  13. jamessal says:

    Myers also makes the correct point that “literary” has become a marketing category and little more. It’s a point that needs making, too. The better genre authors, like Michael Connelly, though not better than authors of genuine literature (like McEwan and Hollinghurst), are certainly better than some writers labeled literary who win awards for which Connelly et al. are never nominated. Claire Messud and Jennifer Egan come to mind, though to be fair, I have a sense that Egan has gotten better since I last tried to read one of her novels. That would have been 2007: The Keep. Downright awful.
    Ian McEwan has a short story in [the] current New Yorker. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be part of his next novel
    It is. I must say, Treisman does a hell of a job. It really works as a short story.

  14. That Myers, yes. But it’s not fair to judge him by that Atlantic Monthly article, which was butchered by the editors to remove all the authors that Myers likes, leaving him open to the charge of not liking any “difficult” author. I recommend reading his book of the same title, which presents his argument complete, and also has a wonderful appendix responding to his critics.
    And I certainly agree that good writers work by making good sentences. What I disagree with is the “touchstone” theory Myers condemns, that the only thing a good work needs is good sentences, and that we ought to judge books by finding what sentences we can pull out of context and admire in isolation (or, if we are writing a review, putting them in boxes in large print, which is where Myers gets his quotations). Here’s Northrop Frye on earlier versions of this idea:

    But because poetics is undeveloped, a fallacy arises from the illegitimate extension of rhetoric into the theory of literature. The invariable mark of this fallacy is the selected tradition, illustrated with great clarity in Arnold’s “touchstone” theory, where we proceed from the intuition of value represented by the touchstone to a system of ranking poets in classes. The practice of comparing poets by weighing their lines (no new invention, as it was ridiculed by Aristophanes in The Frogs) is used by both biographical and tropical [i.e. trope-ical] critics, mainly in order to deny first-class rating to those in favor with the opposite group.

    When we examine the touchstone technique in Arnold, however, certain doubts arise about his motivation. The line from The Tempest, “In the dark backward and abysm of time,” would do very well as a touchstone line. One feels that the line “Yet a tailor might scratch her where’er she did itch” somehow would not do, though it is equally Shakespearean and equally essential to the same play. (An extreme form of the same kind of criticism would, of course, deny this and insist that the line had been interpolated by a vulgar hack.)

    On “genre” vs. “literary” fiction, I recommend Ursula K. Le Guin’s blog posting #25, “Petty Expectations” (search on the page).
    Lastly, as for the details, it is certainly a matter of taste how many is too many. For that matter, if I had read the whole book and found myself drowning in such details everywhere, as seems would be the case from what you report, I’d probably react as you do.

  15. jamessal says:

    But it’s not fair to judge him by that Atlantic Monthly article… I recommend reading his book of the same title
    Because you’re recommending it, I will. It must be good for you to admire it as much as you do in spite of Myers’s prescriptivist sympathies. I’m assuming you read his review of Tree of Smoke in The Atlantic.

  16. jamessal says:

    “duck-egg blue” … gets over 7000 Google hits).
    I’m sorry, I meant Google Books Hits. To me, that number indicates that it’s still rare enough to have pretensions but also by now common enough to be worn out.

  17. That night, the wind was up, and the bough of an ash thumped and scraped across the thatched roof.
    It’s good to call it out as an ash, in my opinion. An ash isn’t a willow or a pine, doesn’t make the same kind of sound etc.
    …England in the seventies. I remember everything—the scrubbed pine table with dented legs of faded duck-egg blue,
    “duck-egg blue” is a faux literary cliche (it gets over 7000 Google hits)…
    Duck-egg blue is a familiar description for English folk* of my & McEwan’s generation to use. Any schoolboy who made Airfix plastic model aeroplanes could tell you that duck-egg blue is the colour of the underside of the wings of the Spitfire. It’s a greenish blue mixed with a lot of white, and for us that’s its usual name. For me duck-egg blue will always be about Spitfires not about ducks; however, you can’t expect all metaphors to have the same associations for everyone – but perhaps you’re saying that the more detailed you get, the smaller the audience that understands your allusions, so it doesn’t pay for a writer to become very detailed very often. Nevertheless, in this case, when he’s talking about ‘England in the seventies’, I find it an evocative usage.
    Thanks for your detailed picking-apart of his paragraph. It’s very interesting to read examples when you (or anyone) evaluate the writing. I agree that he used way too many modifiers.
    *Scottish, whatever.

  18. jamessal says:

    It’s good to call it out as an ash, in my opinion. An ash isn’t a willow or a pine, doesn’t make the same kind of sound etc.
    I’d say it would be a good call if it were a pine or a willow, those having somewhat exceptional boughs; an ash bough makes the sound most people imagine if you say simply, “bough.” But — as I indicated it must be, because McEwan is an excellent writer, not prone to howlers — this is nit-picking. I was just trying to give a sense of a pattern that’s been troubling me in the writing of an author I admire.
    Duck-egg blue is a familiar description for English folk* of my & McEwan’s generation to use.
    That is good to know, certainly brings it to a level above “mocha.” Thanks.
    perhaps you’re saying that the more detailed you get, the smaller the audience that understands your allusions
    Something like that. At least it’s one of the things to ponder when selecting your words. There was an article, I believe in the Guardian, describing just this problem for writers. I’d hunt it down, but I’m not even sure where to start; I forget the title and who wrote it, and I’m not even sure it was in the Guardian. But it was a good piece. Damn.

  19. I forget the title and who wrote it, and I’m not even sure it was in the Guardian. But it was a good piece. Damn.
    I could have written that.

  20. What I disagree with is the “touchstone” theory Myers condemns, that the only thing a good work needs is good sentences, and that we ought to judge books by finding what sentences we can pull out of context and admire in isolation
    But is that a real thing? It sounds like a straw man to me. (I guess I should read the book, but realistically I’ll let jamessal read it and report back.)

  21. The better genre authors, like Michael Connelly, though not better than authors of genuine literature like McEwan and Hollinghurst
    There are two presuppositions in there, buttresses of the wall in people’s minds that Myers is trying to dynamite with his “propaganda of the deed”. I’m going to try to demolish them here too, because I think I know you better than to think you hold them as conscious beliefs. One is that the authors of mysteries, science fiction, westerns, romances, and other kinds or genres of fiction (lumping them all under the singular noun “genre” makes not even marketing sense) are in some sense second-rate artists, who may be praised only faintly, and with patronizing expressions like “the better X”, as in “Sold in better stores everywhere”. This is like criticizing Diego Rivera for painting in watercolor like any schoolchild — on the walls, yet! — rather than in oils like all the big boys.
    The second presupposition, related but not the same, is that “genre” works cannot be genuine literature: that the sf and fantasy of Le Guin, the mysteries of Stout and Sayers (several of which are romances as well), the sf, fantasy, and sf/fantasy/romance hybrids of Bujold, the horror of Poe and Lovecraft, and the sf/horror hybrids of Sucharitkul, to name just seven (the lucky number) that I happen to like, are somehow lacking in genuineness as literature because they belong to a genre. That is to say, to a set of conventions that binds writers to readers as well as to other writers in an ongoing conversation that can stretch over decades and even centuries. (This formulation is due to Bujold, who apparently reinvented reader-response criticism independently, primarily because she was a fan before she was an author (like most sf and fantasy authors) and had participated in the conversation both in her own head and externally — and then took to the conventions of RR criticism like a duck (with or without blue eggs) as soon as someone said “Oh, that’s what you’ve been saying.”)
    But Homer, after all, was a genre author (one of the better genre authors, perhaps?): he dealt in war stories and fantasy quests that were eaten up by their audiences, who would have fallen asleep within minutes listening to Snow Falling On Cedars. Or, as Edith Hamilton put it in her essay “W.S. Gilbert: A Mid-Victorian Aristophanes” (later recycled in The Greek Way):

    To find the writer most like Aristophanes one must go to an age as unlike his as Shakespeare’s was like. The turbulent democracy that gave birth to the Old Comedy, and the England over whose manners and customs Queen Victoria ruled supreme, had nothing in common; and yet the mid-Victorian Gilbert of Pinafore fame saw eye to eye with Aristophanes as no other writer has done. The case with Shakespeare is reversed. The differences between Aristophanes and Gilbert are superficial; they are due to the differences of their time. In their essential genius they are alike.

    The unknown is always magnificent. Aristophanes wears the halo of Greece, and is at the same time softly dimmed by the dust of centuries of scholarly elucidation. A comparison therefore with an author familiar and beloved and never really thought about wears a look of irreverence, — also of ignorance. Dear nonsensical Gilbert, and the magnificent Aristophanes, poet, political reformer, social uplifter, philosophical thinker, and a dozen other titles to immortality, — how is it possible to compare them? The only basis for true comparison, Plato says, is the excellency that is peculiar to each thing. Was Aristophanes really a great lyric poet? Was he really bent on reforming politics or ending democracy? Such considerations are beside the point. Shakespeare’s glory would not be enhanced if Hamlet’s soliloquy was understood as a warning against suicide, or if it could be proved that he was attacking the social evil in Pericles.

    The peculiar excellency of comedy is its excellent fooling, and Aristophanes’s claim to immortality is based upon one title only: he was a master maker of comedy, he could fool excellently. Here Gilbert stands side by side with him. He, too, could write the most admirable nonsense. There has never been better fooling than his, and a comparison with him carries nothing derogatory to the great Athenian.

    Nor, indeed, the reverse.
    I should add that A Reader’s Manifesto is not primarily an attack on certain authors, but on a culture of reviewing each other’s books that makes it impossible to write anything but positive reviews (or, at most, “does not quite come up to previous expectations, but will doubtless be succeeded by yet another triumph” reviews) of those within the charmed circle. You scratch my book and I’ll scratch yours….
    Hat: Yeah, let him read Myers, he might learn something. When you and I read something for our own good, we’re quite likely to forget it all, round about next week. If youth only knew, if age only could. ~~ grinning, ducking, and running, albeit rather slowly ~~

  22. jamessal says:

    I think I know you better than to think you hold them as conscious beliefs.
    You’re right. I don’t think all fiction that fits a genre is necessarily precluded from the lofty ranks of Literature. I was using a shorthand that, given the context, was especially inappropriate. I wish I had more time to answer in full (I have to drive down to Philly to pick uo plastic spoons and pint containers — ugh); I will say, however, that I’m more interested in the book now than ever, especially since I know that my own opinions about what constitutes Literature and what doesn’t are both vehement and inchoate, if you can imagine such a consciously held combination.
    One parting shot, though, before we take this up again after I’ve read the book: I don’t buy for a second that Homer was a genre author. Yes, The Iliad was about war, but there’s a difference between fitting a genre and having a subject. It’s not like Homer was following a familiar script like many of today’s mystery writers. I’ve never heard of the war-story-that’s-more-sympathetic-to-the-other-side-and-ends-mid-battle-with-a-shocking-act-of-compassion-within-a-warrior-culture genre.

  23. dearieme says:

    If one character chucked a trumpet at another character, it would be a (drum roll) trumpet volitary.

  24. You’ve probably never heard of a Regency-romance-novel-that-depends-on-the-adoption-of-ex-utero-pregnancy-devices-on-a-regressed-technology-planet either, but it exists: Bujold’s A Civil Campaign. Like every romance, it ends with a marriage (not that of the hero and heroine, though that is presaged clearly), but it couldn’t exist without 30th-century technology.

  25. The word also seen in the phrase ‘muscae volitantes’, flitting flies, denoting the stars you see when you get up too quickly.

  26. Where have you seen it, Conrad?

  27. WiPe gives a different sense for muscae volitantes: they are those floaters in your eyeball.

  28. muscae volitantes
    I too have only heard this in the OED sense:

    Small moving spots in the field of vision representing a normal or sometimes pathological phenomenon usually caused by opacities in the vitreous humour of the eye. Also called floaters.

    John Cowan wrote:
    volito is the frequentative of volo ‘fly’, and really means ‘fly to and fro, flit about, flutter’
    Yes. And note that flitter and flutter are themselves well analysed as frequentatives of flit. The OED entry “flitter, v.” does not state this directly, but in the etymology links us to a frequentative suffix “-er”. In fact, it incorrectly links us to “-er, suffix3″, which is quite another thing; I must contact them about that. From the correct “-er, suffix5″:

    Forming frequentative vbs. The vbs. of this formation which can be traced in Old English have the form -rian (:—Germanic -rôjan); e.g. clatrian clatter v., flotorian flutter v. The other Germanic langs. have many vbs. of this type, denoting repeated action; often they are verbal bases, as Middle High German wanderen = Old English wandrian wander v. Germanic *wandjan wend v.1, Old Norse vafra waver v. vafa = wave v.; sometimes app. on onomatopœic bases, as Old High German zwizarôn = twitter v.1 Further examples in English are batter, chatter, clamber, flicker, glitter, mutter, patter, quaver, shimmer, shudder, slumber.

    And may I be excused for not emulating OED’s markup.
    French has this in spades also, of course. Verbs ending in -oter are often kinds of “verbal diminutives”, with either frequentative or “defective” connotation. Some from Petit Robert: pleuv[i]oter “pleuvoir légèrement” (cf. pleuviner, pleuvasser); tapoter “frapper légèrement à petits coups répétés” and also “jouer mal ou négligemment sur un piano” (cf. pianoter “jouer du piano maladroitement, sans talent, comme un débutant”); vivoter “vivre au ralenti, faute de santé ou avec de petits moyens”; chipoter “manger par petits morceaux, du bout des dents et sans plaisir” (cf. grignoter); clignoter “cligner coup sur coup rapidement et involontairement”; crachoter “cracher souvent et peu”.

  29. And there are hugely many such possibilities in all Romance languages, of course. (Now there’s a book I lust after.) More could be said about the situation in English; but I think OED does not manage the topic especially well.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Noetica, thank you for adding the French forms. I know them all, except that I have never heard pleuvioter, only pleuvoter ‘(rain) to drizzle’. I would not use pleuviner but I have seen it written, so it may be dialectal. Pleuvasser is definitely negative, as indicated by the suffix -ass-.
    Grignoter is not quite the same as chipoter: the latter refers to eating a food normally eaten in a meal with fork and knife, without appetite or enjoyment (eg “pushing the food around the plate, picking at one’s food”), while grignoter is more specifically about the type of food: it could be used about a mouse, and about a person taking tiny bites of something potentially crumbly such as a dry cookie or stale piece of bread, held in the hand, again without an appetite: ‘to nibble (away)’ is probably the best translation. Chipoter often has a slightly derogatory connotation in that the person doing it may be making a show of it, seeming to want to shame the hearty appetite of a healthy person at the same meal, while grignoter simply describes nibbling at a crumbly food without implying a judgment.
    The suffix -oter is not the only one with the frequentative/diminutive meaning: volitare immediately calls to mind voleter ‘to flitter’, which cannot be a direct descendant from Latin (since the -t- would have disappeared on its way to Modern French), but a similar formation coined much later, from voler ‘to fly’. Either that, or voleter descends from a Latin form volittare where the double /tt/ ensured the preservation of a /t/ sound in French.
    Other -eter verbs I can think of offhand, which are definitely French, not Latin, formations, are piqueter ‘to make numerous tiny holes in sthg’, from piquer ‘to stick sthg pointed (into sthg else), hence (bee, mosquito) to sting, (rough fiber, unshaven man) to scratch, be scratchy’ and becqueter ‘(bird’) to stick its beak in sthg’ (eg into an apple) (from bec ‘beak, bill’).
    While we are on the topic of birds, here is a kind of nursery rhyme which I learned as a child (pronouncing all final e‘s), with the verb picoter which is different from piqueter although built on the same base piquer:
    Une poule sur un mur
    Qui picote du pain dur
    Picoti, picota,
    Trois petits tours et puis s’en va

    A hen on top of a wall
    Picking away at some dry bread
    “pickity, pickita”
    Three times she whirls and then goes off

  31. But in my experience those opacities in the vitreous humor neither flitter nor flutter.

  32. Thank you for adding to the stock of intelligence on the Romance front, Marie-Lucie.
    But in my experience those opacities in the vitreous humor neither flitter nor flutter.
    Not to fly in the face of orthodoxy Ø, the flittering (or fluttering, as the case may be) of muscae volitantes is in the eye of the beholder. I flatter myself with the fleeting inside insight that those blinking floaters are not flies either, but … thinking makes them so. Shakesparently, anyway.

  33. Noetica, you fluster me. What flipping orthodoxy? Is my perspective flawed? When it comes to motes and beams, I can’t always tell the beholder from the beholden. But I concede that the word “floater” may have ‘fluenced me unduly. And I note, with Muhammad Ali, that flitting flutter(by)ing flies also float.
    Does The Bard have an eye-fly quote? I looked for one, and found Thoreau instead. Also (sorry) this thinker.

  34. No doubt I picked up ‘fluence from reading Wodehouse.
    I associate it with ‘change for the stock exchange.

  35. Which I picked up from reading Dickens. “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
    The absence of an article is interesting.

  36. Maybe I saw “‘Change” in a Dorothy L. Sayers book. Yes, it doesn’t ever seem to be “The ‘Change”.

  37. Bathrobe says:

    Une poule sur un mur
    Qui picote du pain dur
    Picoti, picota,
    Trois petits tours et puis s’en va

    This nursery rhyme is just begging for gestures! Is it accompanied by a little series of actions to illustrate what the hen is doing?

  38. marie-lucie says:

    I used “nursery rhyme”, because that is the closest equivalent, but I think that English nursery rhymes are spoken, while the French ones are simple little songs, often accompanied by traditional gestures. If the child is standing, then when the words “trois petits tours” come, the child is indeed supposed to turn around three times. If sitting, then the hands are moving around each other and then joining together in the child’s back (I am not sure how to describe this better – it is very easy to demonstrate, less so to describe).

  39. There are a zillion videos for that little song, but the only one I’ve found with any gestures is this one. Also, none of them seem to have “trois petits tours”—it’s always “Lève la queue et puis s’en va.”

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Well, the only one I know has “Trois petits tours”. This is what was sung in my family and among my classmates as a child. My mother, a kindergarten teacher for many years, never reported hearing a different version (children would have let her know if her version had been different from theirs). But it is not surprising that there should be several versions.
    In the one you link to, the little girl is not very intelligible (and the beginning is missing), but she seems to be saying “baisse la queue”.
    I listened to a few others, and some have been heavily edited. One guy is singing qui picorait du pain dur: the verb is wrong, since picorer implies that the food consists of tiny individual pieces, like small seeds, while picote du pain dur brings to my mind chunks of bread which the hen is picking at with her beak. I guess the singer has never seen a live chicken and only has a dim idea of how it feeds. And at the end he says “Lève la tête“. He also changes the verb tense to the imperfect instead of the present, suggesting that a story is being told. But the end “s’en va” is still in the present: this is not a story, but a description of a scene, so all verbs should be in the present. In all, it seems that he is trying to rewrite the song to make it more realistic. That is a mistake.
    The series calls all such little songs “comptines”. This word strictly applies to formulaic utterances used to count without numbers in order to determine who will be “it” in a game. In many if not most cases the words are nonsensical or used for sound effect mure than for sense. This is not the case with little songs like this one about the hen. (Actually, we should translate “chicken”, since “la poule” is the generic term).
    This is a very well-known comptine:
    Am, stram, gram
    Pic et pic et colégram
    Bour et bour et ratatam
    Am, stram, gram
    I think that the true comptines, such as this one, may be remnants of very old divinatory practices, in languages which have long been lost. In English, “Hickory dickory dock” may have a similar origin.

  41. I’d say that all traditional English nursery rhymes were also originally songs, but in some cases the oral tradition has been broken, and consequently the tunes have been lost. This is particularly true in North America, I think, where the words were often transmitted in writing, but the tunes generally were not. (I wonder if this is also true of Canadian French?)
    Of the 86 soi-disant nursery rhymes listed on this page found by a google, including both traditional and modern rhymes, I know the melodies for about 18 of them; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brits on LH know more. Some almost certainly have none, like “This is the house that Jack built”. Others I know to have tunes, like “Oranges and lemons”, but I don’t know them myself.
    Not listed there are four traditional English nursery rhymes with words in French (all with melodies), namely “Sur le pont d’Avignon” (originally “Sous le pont”, it seems), “Frere Jacques” (which has an English-language version too), “Au clair de la lune”, and “Alouette, gentille alouette”. I sing them all, along with the Brahms Lullaby and “Veni, veni Emmanuel” to my grandson as bedtime songs.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    traditional English nursery rhymes with words in French
    ??? These are French songs, even if some English speakers like them and sing them.
    Sur le pont d’Avignon
    On y danse, on y danse …
    :
    Sur is correct. The song is about an actual bridge in an actual city. If people were under the bridge, they would not be dancing, they would be in the Rhône, which is a powerful river. Since parts of the bridge collapsed more than once and it was eventually left incomplete, it could no longer serve for crossing the river and the space on top probably became a place of entertainment.

  43. Bathrobe says:

    The only comptine-like verse I can think of in English is:
    O U T spells ‘out’, and out you must go if I say so.
    But I’m pretty sure I suffered from a deprived childhood in that regard.

  44. Others I know to have tunes, like “Oranges and lemons”, but I don’t know them myself.
    Oranges & Lemons

  45. Bathrobe says:

    Well I never! Wikipedia, needless to say, has a page about Counting Rhymes or Counting-Out Games. The French version is Formulette d’élimination, which contains our friend “Une poule sur un mur, qui picotait du pain dur, picoti, picota, lève la queue et puis s’en va”, as well as “Une vache qui pisse dans un tonneau c’est rigolo mais c’est salaud/pas beau”, as well as a few others. There is also a page on Chanson enfantine, which contains comptines. It includes a list of chansons enfantines.

  46. The one we used was “Dip, dip, dip, my little ship,”. I never trusted those rhymes. The counter would always continue with an additional line or two if it didn’t seem to be ending where they’d intended. We graduated to “One potato, two potato…’, which seemed less easy (though not impossible) to manipulate.

  47. Pic et pic et colégram
    When the radiologist has a peek at your large bowel.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    I had never heard of the term formulette d’élimination, to me that is the definition of a comptine, but it is possible that comptine is now used in the larger sense of chanson enfantine, hence the necessity of another term.
    I guess just about any short, rhythmical text could serve as a formulette, but I am still surprised to see “Une poule sur un mur” in that role. To me that is a little song you sing and act with a small child, as the woman feeding her twins did in one of the YouTube videos (using different gestures than I would).

  49. Marie-Lucie:
    The four songs I mentioned are certainly French, but my point is that they are now also part of the English nursery-rhyme tradition: children learn them orally, and may even be taught them in primary school. As far as I know they are unique in this respect. Certainly some anglophones learn French poems or songs by heart, but they are not normally passed by oral tradition from other anglophones.
    The four (perhaps you may find a fifth, but this does not refute my general assertion, as Dr. Johnson said about sequences of perfectly versified lines in Shakespeare) are on a larger scale much like the many (modern) French phrases that have become part of English, from a la carte to volte-face. (Though personally I draw the line at zut alors!, which is only used in self-conscious mockery of French people). Wikipedia has a list of English French phrases which are not (or are no longer) current French, or are used in different senses in current French, from accoutrements (military) through nostalgie de la boue to vignette (verbal). C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre, as we say.
    AJP: Thanks for the YouTube link.
    Hat: Bathrobe’s link to Counting-Out Games is presumably meant to be to Wikipedia, but it is broken: time for the hattish powers to surface.
    Bathrobe:
    I grew up with Eeny meeny miny mo as the counting-out game of choice, which it turns out also exists in Italian (based on the now-banned form with nigger instead of tiger in the second line):
    Inimini maini mo
    Chissania baistò
    Iffiala retingò
    Inimini maini mo.
    But the big shocker was reading the Wikipedia article on “Rock-a-bye Baby”. The use of these words with a lullaby tune has always seemed anomalous to me and to many other people: it suggests nightmares of falling out of bed. Wikipedia says it may have been a “dandling rhyme”, one used in bouncing or tossing a baby or small child, and this seems very plausible (with the child falling and being caught at the end). But the article says the tune is a modified version of “Lilliburlero”! I never heard (of) such a thing in all my life.
    So off to YouTube, and sure enough, the first hit is obviously “Lilliburlero”, made slightly easier to sing. In a rollicking 6/8 measure, it is far more appropriate to the words than the tune I know, which is in 3/4 time and rather slow. You can hear that one on the second, third, and fourth hits. A later hit is the same tune, but distorted into a 4/4 pseudo-Motown version, very strange indeed (though not as strange as my cell phone’s ringtone, which I like to describe as “The Amazing Grace March”.)

  50. A later hit is the same tune
    The link don’t work, John.

  51. Wikipedia has a list of English French phrases which are not (or are no longer) current French
    For “encore” they have:

    A request to repeat a performance, as in “Encore!”, lit. again; also used to describe additional songs played at the end of a gig. Francophones would say «Une autre!» (Another one!) to request « un rappel » (an encore).

    I thought they said «Bis!» Is this another of my long-out-of-date ideas?
    I have fixed Bathrobe’s link, but John’s doesn’t have a URL, so even hattic magic is powerless.

  52. Owlmirror says:

    The following book might be of interest, given the current subtopic: Comparative studies in nursery rhymes, by Lina Eckenstein (1906). Freely downloadable due to being out of copyright.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    In French, encore! can mean more!, as in what Oliver Twist said in his failed attempt to fill his stomach.
    Bis means ‘twice’ in Latin. It is meant to request a repeat of the previous performance. The verb meaning ‘to say “bis”‘ is bisser, a transitive verb. Un rappel refers to calling back the actors on the stage for another bow, or the musicians for another piece (one already played, or a different one, as they choose). I don’t remember hearing Une autre!, but it is a long time since I saw a performance in a French setting. This cry would call for an additional piece, not a repeat, and Encore une autre! could be said for yet another one. Encore une fois! means ‘one more time!’, something requested by the conductor or director during a rehearsal, rather than by the audience after a performance. (These requests are not limited to the context of performances).

  54. Rock-a-bye Baby as rock’n'roll. Sorry about that.
    Also self-conscious mockery was an error on my part for conscious mockery.
    Marie-Lucie:
    The English Wikipedia says that the song originally referred to dancing on the Île de la Barthelasse beneath the bridge, rather than actually on it. On investigation, the source for this doesn’t look very reliable, though.
    The Pont Saint-Bénézet, as it is officially called, built in 1171, has been ruinous since 1668, and at present has only four arches (of the original 22) and goes nowhere. Dancing on it, or part of it, would not obstruct traffic. In an earlier age, there was a chapel of St. Nicholas (the patron of boatmen as well as mariners) on the bridge, later transferred to the foot of it on the Avignon-proper side. The bridge was originally the only fixed crossing between Lyons and the sea (and thus strategically important), and was a customs checkpoint between France and the Papal States.
    More exactly, between the Comtat Venaissin, an exclave of the Papal States from 1348 to 1791 that extended slightly west of the river, and Avignon proper, a French enclave within the exclave. To make things even more complicated in good mediaeval fashion, Valréas was an exclave of the Papal exclave (bought up in order to maintain the wine supply); it is now, in an inversion of the old order, an exclave of Vaucluse, the département of which Avignon is the capital.
    (The English Wikipedia articles are better than the French ones here, so I’m linking to them.)

  55. Bathrobe says:

    has been ruinous since 1668
    This sounds very quaint. Do you know any other ruinous bridges?

  56. Bathrobe says:

    I checked the dictionary and there it is: ‘ruinous’ means ‘ruined or dilapidated’. But it still sounds quaint.

  57. Noetica says:

    Does The Bard have an eye-fly quote?
    Not in so many words, words, words. “But now behold / in the quick forge and working-house of thought,” and squint between the lines.
    In Lear:
    “Out, vile jelly / where is thy lustre now?”
    In a certain Caledonian spectacle:
    “Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One – two – why then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky.”
    And of course, the parableptic nebulisms in Hamlet:
    “By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.”
    “Methinks it is like a weasel.”
    “It is back’d like a weasel.”
    “Or like a whale.”
    “Very like a whale.”
    Flitting phantasms, aling the vision of the beerholder? An ’twere so, ’tis blinking makes it so.

  58. Parablepsis: nice word.
    Blink again, and the camel vanishes through the eye of a needle, the weasel pops, and the whale sounds (leaving not a rack behind).

  59. Noetica says:

    (leaving not a rack behind)
    Nay, nor wruin neither.
    I had never heard of the term formulette d’élimination, …
    Nay, nor I neither. First guess at a meaning: “short-order apothecary purgative preparation”. (Heh!)

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