My 21-month-old grandson and I like to play a game we call “Ada” (because the first book he selects, by tradition, is a handsome if somewhat beat-up hardcover edition of that Nabokov novel): he points to, or pulls off the shelf, a book from my poetry and literature collection and I read a few lines. (He has his favorites—Jonathan Williams, Yeats, Flann O’Brien, Richard Powers—and sometimes pretends to read aloud from his very favorite, a garish paperback Bustan of Sadi.) Today he pulled out The English Patient, and I opened it to a fine bit of Ondaatje prose I thought I’d share:

Many books open with an author’s assurance of order. One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle.

I begin my work at the time when Servius Galba was Consul…. The histories of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, while they were a power, were falsified through terror and after their death were written under a fresh hatred.

So Tacitus began his Annals.

But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door a lock a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat.


  1. For anyone curious about what the word means (I read it initially, in the title, as an alternative spelling of ‘gunwale’, which my dictionary now tells me it also is), here’s what OED2 has to say on it:
    gunnel (ˈgʌnəl).
    [Of unknown origin; Ray regarded it as Cornish.]
    A small, eel-shaped marine fish, Centronotus or Murænoides gunnellus, common in British waters; the butter-fish.
    Also spotted gunnel.
    1686 Willughby & Ray Hist. Pisc. 115 Gunnellus Cornubiensium, nonnullis Butterfish.
    1740 R. Brookes Art of Angling ii. xviii. 123 The Butter-Fish or Gunnel..some-times attains the length of six Inches..is taken frequently on the Cornish Coast.
    1828 J. Fleming Brit. Anim. 207 Gunnellus vulgaris, Common Gunnel..G. viviparus, Viviparous Gunnel.
    1836 Yarrell Brit. Fishes I. 239 The Spotted Gunnel, or Butterfish..is sufficiently distinguished from the true Blennies by its dorsal fin..and by its elongated, slender, and compressed body.
    1863 Wood Nat. Hist. III. 291 The Butter-fish, Swordick, or Spotted Gunnel (Centronotus gunellus), belongs to this family [sc. of the Blennies].

  2. Well done, Aidan. Not only did I think it was a gunwale, I now see I didn’t know what one was, though I think I once did. Here’s Wiki’s explanation:

    The gunwale (pronounced /ˈɡʌnəl/ “gunnel” to rhyme with “tunnel”) is a nautical term describing the top edge of the side of a boat.
    Wale is the same word as the skin injury, a weal, which, too, forms a ridge. Originally the gunwale was the “Gun ridge” on a sailing warship. This represented the strengthening wale or structural band added to the design of the ship, at and above the level of a gun deck. It was designed to accommodate the stresses imposed by the use of artillery.
    In wooden boats, the gunwale remained, mounted inboard of the sheer strake, regardless of the use of gunnery. In modern boats, it is the top edge of the side where there is usually some form of stiffening.
    On a canoe, the gunwale is typically the widened edge at the top of the side of the boat, where the edge is reinforced with wood, plastic or aluminum.
    On a rowing boat (especially in sports), the gunwale is sometimes referred to as the saxboard.

    Perhaps someone knows about saxboard’s origin.

  3. Oh, and it is a fine piece of prose. I’m interested in opening lines. I like the suggestion of one of the Mitfords (I think it was Nancy) for opening a novel with “In the beginning…”.

  4. Bill Walderman says

    That’s actually the beginning of the Histories, not the Annals. (Sorry, I can’t help being a captious pedant.)

  5. Not a pleasant-looking creature, if you ask me.

  6. dearieme says

    My wife’s favourite opening line:-
    “Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

  7. jamessal says

    Are we sure he doesn’t mean “gunwale”?

  8. That’s The Towers of Trebizond. i read that forty years ago.

  9. I noticed that most of the learned quotations in TEP came from fairly early on in the book – the central story, that of Gyges and Candaules, is pretty much the first anecdote Herodotus tells – and this rather makes me suspect that Ondaatje, like Dorothy Sayers (whose novels had the same trait), has started a lot more books than he has finished.

  10. My mother’s is
    I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

  11. marie-lucie says

    The sentence is obscure, but I assume he means “gunwale”: in old-fashioned texts the readers are as in a boat on a quiet river or canal (“slipping into the water with a silent paddle”) but here the boat starts rushing through some unexpected “opening” (“a door, a lock, a weir”) and each boater has to hold on, to his hat with one hand (otherwise it would fly away), and what else is there to be holding on to? obviously the closest gunwale – it could hardly be a fish (especially a “benthic” one).
    The word “wale” has another, related meaning: a ridge on corduroy fabric. If you want corduroy, you can choose between regular, “medium wale” corduroy (usual for pants and jackets), “pinwale” (very thin ridges on a light fabric, often used for shirts) or “wide wale” (much wider, more prominent ridges, a fabric that goes in and out of fashion). (The word is unrelated to the country of “Wales” next to England).

  12. I think marie-lucie is right (as usual). Well explicated!

  13. And I think I will start expanding “Hold on to your hats!” to “Hold on to your hats and gunnels!”

  14. Some credit goes to Jamessal too.

  15. Bill Walderman says

    “this rather makes me suspect that Ondaatje, like Dorothy Sayers (whose novels had the same trait), has started a lot more books than he has finished.”
    I thought I was the only person guilty of this.

  16. Did corduroy originate in France, Marie-Lucie? I suppose I could look it up at Wiki, but I’d rather hear your explanation.

  17. (I was thinking of the “du roi”.)

  18. In the absence of m-l, I will quote from the Wikipedia article (which I emended just now to provide a correct etymology):

    While the word “corduroy” looks as if it should have a French origin, as if derived from “corde du roi” (“cloth/cord of the king”), in fact there is no such phrase in French, and the word, like the cloth, is of English origin, probably from cord plus the obsolete duroy, a coarse woolen fabric. Corduroy is believed to have been first produced in Manchester, England.

    Duroy is “of uncertain origin.”

  19. scarabaeus says

    Corduroy; once the prerogative of the laborer as it was hard wearing, thus not good for the betters, now up stream.

  20. marie-lucie says

    “corduroy”: It looks like a French word or phrase (either coeur du roi or more likely corde du roi) but it is not known in French, so it could be from Norman French (spoken in England after the conquest). I can’t be more specific or confident.
    In France the fabric is called velours côtelé, literally “ridged velvet”, or just velours where it is unambiguous. In 19th century French novels, corduroy pants (pantalons de velours) are the typical garment of heavy-duty manual workers such as masons, bricklayers, roofers and others who are in contact with hard substances which would rapidly wear out a less sturdy fabric. I saw those pants worn by some older men when I was a child, made of thick brown corduroy, rather baggy and held up by suspenders. Denim seems to have replaced corduroy now.

  21. Odd. I was just fingering my copy of The Towers of Trebizond and thinking it would make good summer re-reading.

  22. it could be from Norman French
    No it couldn’t, it only goes back to 1795. It’s an English word that happens to look like French.

  23. I was just fingering my copy of The Towers of Trebizond and thinking it would make good summer re-reading.
    It would indeed—a delightful book.

  24. On the Macaulay thread — has anyone read her Pleasure of Ruins? I was thinking that might be good dacha fare.

  25. On the charming 21-month-old grandson thread: sounds like an amazing little person. Gee, do you think he’ll grow up to be a reader?

  26. John Emerson says

    I’ve posted this before, but it’s on-topic again:
    1. Thoreau wore corduroy and was scorned for it, because corduroy is Irish.
    2. Satie wore a complete corduroy outfit every day for years (he had several different sets) and was thus known as the velours gentleman, mistranslated “velvet gentleman” except by Shattuck.

  27. marie-lucie says

    LH: corduroy: thank you for the correction. Of course it would have been unlikely that the fabric by that name was in use at the time of the conquest, but the word “could” have existed in some other context. I am glad to learn that it did not.
    JE: corduroy is Irish: tell us more?
    We discussed Satie’s sartorial preferences some time ago, I think.

  28. We need to give some kind of award to MMcM. His Herrlee G. Creel solution was enough for immortal fame in my opinion, and now this.

  29. marie-lucie says

    I agree about the award, but I can’t see more than the top half of the word CORDUROY.

  30. That’s The Towers of Trebizond. i read that forty years ago.
    Snap! So did I. And loved it.

  31. Back to the Normans and corduroy… the Dictionnaire Jersiais-Français mentions under the entry for cordéré/cordéray: “Et dans des textes du 18e siècle nous avons recueilli les formes corduré, cordurey, etc.” Annoyingly, no further citations are given.
    I’d always imagined cordéré was a borrowing from English, although where English had got it from was another question.
    Interestingly, the Dictiounnaire Angllais-Guernésiais gives tixaette for corduroy (not a word I’d come across before).
    And Satie was, of course, a Norman.

  32. marie-lucie says

    GJ, glad to see you here, just the person we need.
    cordurey especially fits in very well with an older French origin since the ending oy (or oi) comes from ey or ei, as in French roi (now [rwa] but much earlier [roy]) from OF rei, cf Spanish rey). In French varieties where ey/ei did not become oy/oi, it must have remained, or became simply é, as in the forms GJ quotes (similar variant endings exist in common place names in use in different regions).
    There are two possibilities then for cordurey (and other forms without o): either it represents the original form, preserved in NF, or it is an adaptation of corduroy at an early enough date that the equation NF ey = Middle Frengh oy was well known and borrowings from MF (even if filtered through English) were automatically pronounced according to their NF equivalent. In either case, it is doubtful either that the word started as an English one, or that it is relatively recent. But it is possible that it did not always refer to the same fabric.

  33. I know it’s sometimes referred to by my parents’ generation at ‘corduroy velvet’.
    mistranslated “velvet gentleman” except by Shattuck
    Isn’t there supposed to be an Irish toast, ‘To the little gentleman in black velvet’, who is a mole, the mole over whose hill King Billy (Wm III)’s horse tripped, thereby killing the King? I know that’s the story, I’m not sure how true it is; for one thing, moles are brown.

  34. Google Books doesn’t allow full text access to the Great White North, either? Crazy. Well, there’s always a copy in The Internet Archive. Page 359:

    Within a week I have had made a pair of corduroy pants, which cost when done $1.60. They are of that peculiar clay-color, reflecting the light from portions of their surface. They have this advantage, that, beside being very strong, they will look about as well three months hence as now, — or as ill, some would say. Most of my friends are disturbed by my wearing them. I can get four or five pairs for what one ordinary pair would cost in Boston, and each of the former will last two or three times as long under the same circumstances. The tailor said that the stuff was not made in this country; that it was worn by the Irish at home, and now they would not look at it, but others would not wear it, durable and cheap as it is, because it is worn by the Irish. Moreover, I like the color on other accounts. Anything but black clothes.

  35. Jolly hard to make your own trousers. Furniture, yes. Log cabin, ok. Trousers? I’d buy some tartan and wear a kilt. Interesting that Thoreau used the word ‘pants’, I thought that was a more recent usage. I agree you can get awfully sick of black clothes, why not go completely crazy and wear some clay-colored corduroy for a change.

  36. marie-lucie says

    AJP, Thoreau did not make his own trousers, he had them made by a tailor. They are hard to make, even the old-fashioned ones which did not have a belt (I made some, of thick brown corduroy, when I was making historical costumes). The Irish immigrants had worn corduroy at home, but now that they had more money to spend on clothes they did not want to wear a symbol of poverty. The cost of Thoreau’s pants should be measured against the total cost of his food for the year, which he estimated at about $6.00.
    ‘the little gentleman in black velvet’, who is a mole … for one thing, moles are brown.
    The ones I have seen were a dark grey. There are probably a number of species differing slightly in colour.

  37. I see I misread it. Still, spending a quarter of his annual food budget on trousers seems excessive. I suppose they were intended to last for twenty years.
    Did you see dark grey moles in France or in Canada (or someplace else)? In England and Norway the ones I’ve seen have been a lovely rich dark brown, a perfect colour for wide-wale corduroy trousers. There is a fabric called ‘moleskin’; I think it looks like suede, but I’m not sure.

  38. marie-lucie says

    According to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life (1st ed., 1967): “The black fur [of the European Common Mole] is thick, short, velvery, and without set, as is most suitable for a subterranean animal.”
    I am pretty sure I saw dark grey (not black or brown) moles in France. The picture of a mole on Wiki shows its fur as dark brownish grey, or greyish brown if you prefer (of course, colours on posted photographs are not always reliable). It also shows the mole’s enormous “hands” with huge, very strong-looking nails.
    “Moleskin” is a fabric similar to suede in appearance but much softer. Look it up on Wiki to learn about its interesting uses.

  39. Moleskin is used for hiking to prevent blisters, or to continue to hike with a blister. Good stuff. The boy scouts used to use it.

  40. David Marjanović says

    (The word is unrelated to the country of “Wales” next to England).

    I wonder about German Welle “wave”… suuure, the vowel doesn’t seem to fit, but vowels almost never fit between English and German 😉

    for one thing, moles are brown.

    Please don’t tell me you confused moles and voles. Moles are the ones that eat beetle larvae and earthworms; voles (Arvicola) are the ones that eat all roots and tubers they can find in your garden…

    The ones I have seen were a dark grey.

    At least one of the North American species is gr…ey. The single European one is black.
    (…Coming to think of it, it’s probably two cryptic species, but I’m too lazy to look up if anyone has bothered to find out.)
    The trick about moleskin is that the fur of moles doesn’t have a preferred direction. The hairs just stick out straight from the skin, at right angles all around to it, so that the animal can go forwards and backwards with equal ease. This makes the fur much softer than others.

  41. marie-lucie says

    Please don’t tell me you confused moles and voles.
    I won’t tell you that, because I can tell a mole from a vole or shrew (but I am not quite sure how to distinguish the latter two). Only moles have those enormous “hands” thanks to which they are able to make molehills. Perhaps the ones I saw were dark grey from the dust?
    the fur of moles doesn’t have a preferred direction
    That’s what is meant by “without set” in the quotation above.

  42. “Without set” means you can’t pet a mole backwards? So that’s why they use the name for the foot product. A blister is caused when the shoe rubs back and forth over the same bit of skin. Moleskin (the commercial product) is adhesive on one side and fuzzy on the other. So when you stick it over a blister or a red spot on your heel, the fuzz takes the friction of the shoe away from your own skin. Needless to say, you do not remove this product or you will tear open the blister. You have to let it wear off by itself, which it does by the time your blister is mostly healed.
    So I guess it makes sense that the commercial moleskin would not have directional fur.

  43. I’m not confusing moles and voles, but I think moles are not really black. I’ve never seen Marie-Lucie’s French, grey ones. My moles have all been a very dark brown; not like the black of, say, a zebra. Thank you both for the information about their fur.

  44. AJP, you might try using the Mongolian word бор, which appears to mean both ‘brown’ and ‘grey’. This would allow you to fudge on the colour of moles, voles, etc. without arousing suspicions of ignorance, apathy or colourblindness (if there is such a thing as grey/brown colourblindness).

  45. But your interlocutor might think you were accusing them of being a bore.

  46. It’s not at all борing. I defer to read on Mongolian colour theory. If you are right, бор sounds like a useful name for a colour; not of moles, who are darker, but as you suggest, perhaps for fudge on moles.
    My daughter when she was young had an imaginary friend, called Bop Johansson, or ‘Johansson’ for short. The name always sounded to me like he must be a jazz musician.

  47. marie-lucie says

    Welsh is another language with terms for different colour ranges than what English or French are used to. But those ranges correspond not to just those of the rainbow but to things in nature: brown-grey is the colour of tree trunks and branches, for instance, and blue-green-grey is the colour of the sea. I see in crossword puzzles the French word écru glossed as “brown”, but in fact this is a colour range that varies from light greyish brown to off-white, because it is the colour range of natural linen, which lightens with exposure to the sun and also with every wash (in very hot water) until it is eventually white.

  48. marie-lucie says

    Grey moles: I did not mean grey like a house mouse, but much darker, although not black. At least that is the way I remember them, I haven’t seen one in a long time.

  49. Aren’t moles nocturnal? In that case you wouldn’t be able to see the color since the cones of the retina do not work in the dark like the rods do.
    Didn’t the Vikings use the same word for black and blue? I’m thinking of Odin’s cloak, and the foreshadowing of death the cloak color is used for in fiction.

  50. David Marjanović says

    I can tell a mole from a vole or shrew (but I am not quite sure how to distinguish the latter two)

    Easy: voles are rodents, shrews (French: musaraigne) are insectivores like moles and hedgehogs. This manifests in head shape (shrew in German: Spitzmaus “pointy mouse”). Besides, voles burrow for a living and shrews don’t… and I’m not sure if there are brown shrews except for the tiniest species.

  51. Aren’t moles nocturnal?
    No, that’s nightclubs. Moles live underground and the London Underground closes about midnight. That’s why they’re dark brown.

  52. Didn’t the Vikings use the same word for black and blue?
    Apparently the Haida did too — at least, ravens are called long blue sleek things in the stories recorded at the beginning of the last century.

  53. marie-lucie says

    Ravens are black but their feathers have a dark bluish tinge in the sun. So does really black, really straight and shiny hair.

  54. Lars Mathiesen says

    Danish does not distinguish corduroy from other velvets; I had a few iterations of fløjlsbukser as a teenager. Nice seventies-brown ones, but that was before a boy could wear velvet even ironically. Corduroy apron dresses in slightly less depressing colors were a thing too, I think (for girls, of course).

    OFr veluel via Dutch fluweel and Low German flöwel. And easy to see where velours and velvet come from.

    (OK, if pressed, corduroy could be specified as jernbanefløjl sc. railroad velvet because it looked a tiny bit like railroad tracks).

  55. I believe the potential French antecedent for corduroy isn’t corde du roy but cour du roy. The metaphor is that corduroy fabric looks like logs laid side by side to create a horribly bumpy but passable road over what would otherwise be a muckpit. Whether the French ever applied the term to a log road, I can’t say. Perhaps it was simply a joking English usage for a crappy road. The engineer who sent the king over a log road would probably be exiled or executed. Except that cours du roy, especially in a Louisiana/Missouri context probably weren’t for the king, but built by royal patronage to improve transport. King’s Highway is still a major thoroughfare in the St. Louis area. It can’t have anything to do with an English king, nor is likely named for an American King. Was it originally a bumpy log-built Cour du Roy?

    The word corduroy can be found in Civil War histories to describe roadways hastily improved by the Army Corps of Engineers. Here’s a passage in Grant’s memoirs, keeping in mind that while the houses and barns torn apart for the purpose may have been clapboard, they may also have been log construction like the proverbial cabin of young Abe.:

    >Nonetheless, the raw recruits plowed ahead with a lusty sense of purpose, throwing off knapsacks and grabbing axes to construct roads. They drained swamps and stripped wood from houses and barns, laying corduroy roads across boggy turf.

    In the Chicago area, we still have an ancient road name – rough-hewn but nonetheless much more felicitous than corduroy, the Plank Road.

  56. I believe the potential French antecedent for corduroy isn’t corde du roy but cour du roy. The metaphor is that corduroy fabric looks like logs laid side by side to create a horribly bumpy but passable road over what would otherwise be a muckpit.

    Sounds like pure folk etymology to me.

  57. David Marjanović says

    Evidence for corde occurs regionally in German: the word I’m used to for corduroy is Schnürlsamt, velvet composed of little cords/ropes.

  58. It’s not a folk etymology. It’s clearly the same word. The only question is which usage came first.

    It’s unlikely there were any corduroy roads 3-400 years ago in France or England, since you didn’t need a hastily built road. Either you improved it with fill and stone or you went around the wet patch. Corduroy roads were all over frontier North America, French and English.

    In that vein, it’s interesting that the first known usage, given the much larger base of publications in England, would seem to be in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1772, spelled corderoy and describing fabric, in a long list of sewing supplies that clearly suggests that Pennsylvanians would have recognized the term, even if no one in the old country did. Clifford and Sons are importers, but why are they using a term for cloth that no one in England has yet used? One reason would be that the cloth was English, but a new name for it had been coined in the American back-country.

    This is a few years after George Washington used corduroy, by whatever name, as he cut the Braddock Road to meet the French in what would become western Penna.

    The citations meaning road proliferate by the early 1800s, always in the context of English descriptions of North America, not infrequently Canadian. MacTaggart writing in London about his 1826-1828 trip to North America gives your theory – that the road was named for the cloth. But his derivation is ridiculous, since he says it comes from the “famous King’s cloth.” No one believes that corduroy cloth was “the famous King’s cloth.” It hadn’t even been heard of in England 40 years before, and was considered poor folks’ clothing.

    Blane, again in London, writing about his 1822-23 journey, describes what “the Western people” speak of as a “Corderoy Road” between the White River and Vincennes (Indiana), which still had a French population at that time.

    The “Rural Repository” mentions a corderoy road in upstate New York in 1824, in an area that was frontier when the road referred to was built “many years since.”

    And in 1827, another London correspondent is speaking of American drivers scrupling not to dash their coaches across corderoy roads.

    Each of the old country authors described the word or put it in quotes, so it’s clearly not yet a living term in England. Yet the geographical spread of the term across the American frontier suggests it had been around for a while under the radar.

    So you’ve got a word that arose in an American context, and very quickly came to mean both road and fabric. The citations for usage as road are all either in Canadian or frontier contexts, many in areas that experienced conflict with the French.

    If you knew of a word initially used in an American context that meant both a fabric made in England that Americans like to buy, and a road so rough-hewn that the term would only be useful in a frontier context, you would predict that the former usage would reach the old country first, regardless of which meaning came first.

    Did someone coin the term corderoy cloth, and then name the roads for it because it looked similar, or did someone use the existing term ‘cour du roy’ for a corduroy road, and name the fabric for it.

    The derivation either way isn’t provable with the available evidence. But a frontier joke about Cours du Roy is at least as attractive as thinking that Pennsylvanians just happened to name a fabric for a Mr. Corderoy that no one knows about, and almost immediately applied it to roads in areas they’d recently conquered from the French.

  59. I’m a knucklehead. I need to admit my lack of any real grasp of French is painfully obvious here. I’ve been writing cour while thinking it was related to words like coureur de bois. It looks like the word I’m thinking of is cours. At minimum, that probably made my suggestion nonsense to anyone who thought I really meant cour. And maybe it is indeed nonsense.

    I have no real idea whether cours was in usage. And it looks like most of the citations for cours du roy I was seeing, trying to confirm that it was a real term, referred to courts of the king rather than a king’s highway.

    I guess I’d have to posit that there was already a perhaps sarcastic usage in Quebec “cours du roy,” for a humble path as compared to the chemin du roy. For which there is no evidence, and which seems dubious. Sorry.

  60. A good honest admission — no apology needed!

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