The fearsomely learned Conrad has sent me an excellent OED find, the long-forgotten word bridelope:

[late OE. brýdlóp, either:—*brýdhléap, or ad. ON. brúðhlaup, brullaup (Sw. bröllopp, Da. bryllup) wedding; cf. OHG. brûthlauft, -louft, MHG. brûtlouf, Ger. (arch.) brautlauf; f. OTeut. brûđi- BRIDE + hlaup- run, LEAP.]
The oldest known Teutonic name for ‘Wedding’: lit. ‘the bridal run’, or ‘gallop’, in conducting the bride to her new home. See Grimm, Brautlauf: and cf. BROOSE [“A race on horseback, or on foot, by the young men present at country weddings in the north”]. ? Only in OE.

Unfortunately, Robin, the bride at the wedding I just got back from, was in too much back pain to do any running or galloping, but she was a real trouper, and I suspect the joy of the occasion more than made up for the discomfort. And Jim, known around these parts as jamessal, had a goofy smile on his face the entire time I was there and was clearly thrilled to be marrying her, as well he might be. The two of them are now off on their honeymoon, and I’m sure they carry the best wishes of the entire LH crowd with them.

I felt a little trepidation setting out on a journey that required essentially sitting on buses for two complete days and spending the intervening days as an outsider in a vortex of family wedding preparation (I was staying with Jim’s parents, Nathan and Lydia), but everyone was so genuinely welcoming I never felt a moment’s awkwardness and was able to fully enjoy the food, drink, and good company. The food was amazing, especially the rehearsal dinner at Elements (an extensive tasting menu that left some diners defeated and asking for doggie bags, but of which I ate every bite); the drink was provided by Mattias Hägglund, the bartender at Elements and a friend of Jim’s, who created concoctions for the wedding reception called Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, and Something Blue (I had the last-named, a mixture of Blue Goose vodka, curacao, and peach liqueur served in a martini glass, and it was so delicious it was only with the sternest self-discipline, and the memory of the effects of the previous night’s alcoholic consumption, that I denied myself a second glass); and the company was so exhilarating I wish I could have spent much more time in it: Jim’s uncle Ken Robbins (who was also staying in the house, and who turned out to be one of the few people I can enjoy talking with when hung over), Jim Haba and his wife Erica (an artist who works in tiles so vivid they made me wish for much more color in the built world around us), Kathryn Levy (whose excitement at finding a fellow Lorine Niedecker fan was such that she dropped her glass)… I know I’m forgetting other names, but the point is, it was a wonderful crowd well worth staying up till 2 AM for. Don’t worry, I’m not about to turn LH into a social calendar, but it’s not often I get to do things like this, and I wanted to record it. Oh, and there’s even a language book involved: Ken gave me a copy of Wordly Wise, by James McDonald (a mathematician who loves word history), which I look forward to immersing myself in.

Totally not LH-related, but wedding-related and a lot of fun: Vanessa’s Wedding Surprise. Warning: schmaltz!

Update (Feb. 2022). The OED updated the bridelope entry in June 2019; here’s the new etymology:

Probably < early Scandinavian (compare Old Icelandic brúðhlaup, brullaup, Old Swedish bruþlöp, brullöp (Swedish bröllopp), Old Danish brudlop, brollup (Danish bryllup)), cognate with Middle High German brūtlouf (German Brautlauf, now hist.) < the Germanic base of bride n.¹ + the Germanic base of leap n.¹ (probably in its original sense ‘act of running’).
Compare (with a suffixed form of the second element: see -t suffix3 1) Old Dutch brūtloft (Middle Dutch brulocht, bruloft; Dutch bruiloft, brullocht), Old Saxon brūdhlōft (Middle Low German brūtlacht), Old High German brūthlouft (Middle High German brūtlouft, early modern German brautlauft), all in the sense ‘wedding’.

The Germanic parallels imply that the meaning of the second element was still ‘act of running’ when the compound was formed, but its exact significance in the context of wedding customs is uncertain and disputed.

Attestation in Old English.

In Old English the word is attested only in sources that also show undisputed Scandinavian loanwords. The first element apparently shows remodelling after Old English brȳd bride n.¹ With the second element compare loup n.¹ (which reflects independent borrowing of the early Scandinavian cognate of leap n.¹) and also lope n.


  1. So “bridelope” must be related to “elope” and to “gantlet,” formerly “gantlope”:

    [corruptly a. Sw. gatlopp, MSw. gatu-lop (f. gata lane, GATE n.2 + lopp course).
      ON. had gǫtuþiófr, explained as a thief punished by running the ‘gantlope’. The Sw. word prob. became known in England through the Thirty Years’ War; the equivalent gassenlaufen is found in Ger.]

    When I learned gantlope’s background some years ago, I argued that the word “gantlet” was already so far from its origin that it made no sense to insist on distinguishing it from “gauntlet.” But I don’t think I persuaded many of my fellow editors.

  2. I was hoping “bridelope” would be a construction like jackalope: a bride with antlers, perhaps? Which could give rise to all sorts of terrific pseudo-folklore. For example, in order to catch the bridelope, the groom puts out a flask of whiskey at night, because bridelopes are easier to catch when they are drunk.

  3. Kári Tulinius says

    Brullaup is sometimes used in modern Icelandic, though brúðkaup or gifting are more common.

  4. … I’m sure they carry the best wishes of the entire LH crowd with them.
    Yes, of course they do!

  5. Bryllup is the (current) Norwegian word for wedding. And å løpe is to run.

  6. I’m guessing this is the same word as modern Dutch bruiloft, then. Just to add another one to the pile.

  7. Interesting. Was just looking for a unique word to make a succinct impact on the old English concept of a man running away with the bride. And voila!

  8. So what about an Auntelope?

  9. Does the winning runner get a slice of meatlope, and a swig of bride-ale ?

  10. A nephew sent a message “antelope” / To which she sadly replied “cantaloupe”.

  11. Actually “meatlope” is off-course, since “loaf” is from Leib [loaf] which, they say, has nothing to do with Brautlauf [bridelope].

  12. David Marjanović says

    the equivalent gassenlaufen is found in Ger.

    So, is it.
    It probably once was. Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

  13. Bill Walderman says

    brúðkaup – Does this mean “bride purchase”?
    Thanks for the information about bridelope. This explains the origin of the Danish & Norwegian word “bryllup”, which was puzzling me.
    Danish for “run” is “at løbe” but even if it were spelled “løpe,” as in Norwegian, it would be pronounced the same, as in Danish there’s no voicing distinction in obstruents other than in word-initial position.

  14. For “replied” read “answered”, of course. Brain fart.

  15. John Emerson says

    Penelope the antelope ate a cantelope.

  16. I understand Canteloube set that one to music.
    And we mustn’t forget Larson’s Spamalope of the Serengeti.

  17. michael farris says

    “I was hoping “bridelope” would be a construction like jackalope”
    I feel slightly less shallow knowing I’m not the only one.

  18. the equivalent gassenlaufen is found in Ger.
    It is still used in modern German, according to Google, if people happen to be discussing, say, the early 19th century (e.g. books about the Napoleonic era). Spießrutenlaufen is the usual term.

  19. It is worth distinguishing “gantlet” from “gauntlet” in spelling iff it reflects a difference in pronunciation. I am sure such a distinction must be made by some from preciousness and/or as a spelling pronunciation, but otherwise?

  20. “Actually “meatlope” is off-course, since “loaf” is from Leib [loaf] which, they say, has nothing to do with Brautlauf [bridelope].”
    The word you are looking for is “brideloaf”, a bitchy term that wedding dress designers use behind their customers’ backs.
    This bridelope business – is that because it’s so much fun watching someone try to run in those sack-race gowns?

  21. “loaf” is from Leib [loaf] and thus related to lady

  22. Victor Sonkin says

    Welll… yes, it’s a nice video, but the groom’s an actor. He played Hugh Laurie’s sidekick in the first movie-length episode of season 6, and appeared in another episode later into the season. Not sure if this information adds anything. By the way, was the groom’s father supposed to be Russian? Or Polish? The fake ‘na zdorovye’ made me even more suspicious.

  23. He played Hugh Laurie’s sidekick in the first movie-length episode of season 6
    Hugh Laurie is in Vanessa’s Wedding Surprise, Season 6? What is he, the vicar?

  24. it’s a nice video, but the groom’s an actor
    Many of the participants are professionals, which is what makes the performance so enjoyable. Trust me, if my family had decided to do Fiddler on the Roof at my wedding, you wouldn’t have wanted to see the video.

  25. Bill Walderman @ 11:43 asked:
    brúðkaup – Does this mean “bride purchase”?
    Yep. Brudekøb in modern Danish – although that institution is long obsolete, and brudekøb is never used as synonymous with bryllup in Danish.

  26. Kári Tulinius says

    Brúðkaup, I believe, means “bride exchange,” rather than “bride purchase.” Kaup in that sense, however, is mostly extinct from modern Icelandic, mostly surviving in constructions like brúðkaup, kaupmáli (contract) and kaupskip (merchant ship).

  27. “bride exchange,”
    There are no guarantees. Is this the same as “wife swapping”? Å kjøpe is to buy in Norwegian.

  28. “loaf” is from Leib [loaf] and thus related to lady
    That’s pretty surprising. The OED also says “the etymology … is not very plausible with regard to sense”. In this vale of etymological tears we call life, no loafing permitted ! Or, as Crown just put it, there are no guarantees when ladies bridle.

  29. I’d love to tell you the cognate word from the couthy Scots of my childhood playground, but I can’t. Mind you, we didn’t much discuss weddings, except for the scrambles.

  30. “Scrambles” ? Does that mean a rush to the buffet tables, or something like that ?

  31. OED: “A dish composed of hastily-mixed ingredients; an informal meal of such dishes.”

    1893 YONGE & COLERIDGE Strolling Players xxii. 187 Selva’s Irish hospitality could allow no one to depart in the rain, and her Irish happy-go-luckiness saw nothing to be ashamed of in a scramble. 1898 J. D. BRAYSHAW Slum Silhouettes 42 Some of the ladies of the district, deeming the short cut to a poor man’s soul was through his vitals, invited them to a free ‘muffin scramble’. 1938 E. WAUGH Scoop I. i. 18 The recipe for a dish named ‘Waffle Scramble’. 1958 Woman’s Own 17 Sept. 15/1 Halve the rolls… Fill with the tuna scramble.

    I too was unfamiliar with it. (Also, I highly recommend Waugh’s Scoop to anyone who hasn’t read it.)

  32. The scramble at a Scottish wedding is something very different: the departing newleyweds throw a handful (or more) of coins for the local children to fight over. I don’t know if the tradition has survived the (relative) gentrification of Glasgow, or even how widespread the practice was to begin with.

  33. “loaf” is from Leib [loaf] and thus related to lady
    That’s pretty surprising. The OED also says “the etymology … is not very plausible with regard to sense”.”
    That’s surprising. I thought “hlaf-dige” and “hlaf-weard” formed a pair = lady and lord. Well, now that you mention it, that is a not a very plausible semantic development. I don’t see how you get any meaning for “lady’ out of “loaf-kneader”.

  34. I seem to remember that “hlaf-dige” is supposed to mean “loaf-distributer” rather than “loaf-kneader”.

  35. Maybe the association between lady and loaf derives from rich folks, who by definition have a lot of bread. As Marie-Thérèse (wife of Louis 14) supposedly said once in an unpeasant frame of mind: qu’ils mangent de la brioche. I found this translated “literally” here as “Let them eat rich, expensive, funny-shaped, yellow, eggy buns”. Isn’t it neat how the French can get so much meaning into a single word !

  36. David Marjanović says



  37. According to the link I gave (“here“), the Pöbel still believes that Marie-Antoinette said it, whereas “historians have known better all along”. You don’t want to be Pöbel, now do you ?!

  38. All wrong about “lady” then, eh? One more tired old false factoid to stop repeating.
    What I’ve heard about “let them eat cake” was that the actual callous remark meant “let them eat the bits that remain stuck in the pan after you take the [some baked good or other] out”. That’s wrong, too, huh?

  39. Yeah, I heard that too. I’ve never been able to sort out the “let ’em eat brioche” thing.

  40. The wife of Louis XIV was “Marie-Thérèse” (Maria Teresa of Spain). “Marie-Antoinette” (Maria Antonia of Austria) was the wife of Louis XVi. Neither of them said “qu’ils mangent de la brioche”.

  41. She could well have said “Let them eat challah“, it’s not that different as a food. In fact I’m surprised the French had brioches in the 17th century; I would have expected that they were brought in by Marie Antoinette, in other words that the French got the challah (aka khale or birches) recipe from Austria, as they did for croissants, and just made them bun-shaped, as challah would look if you were to tear off one of the plaited pieces of the loaf.

  42. Neither of them said “qu’ils mangent de la brioche”.
    So I was passing on an urban legend about an urban legend ? The theory is applicable to itself – as every theory with universal applicability should be. Just like Sister Ray said – and Luhmann.
    Of course Sister Ray was not equally prolific. She is remembered primarily for “don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet ?”, presumably meaning that brioches should be eaten from a plate.

  43. Grumbly Stu: Does the winning runner get a slice of meatlope, and a swig of bride-ale ? It’s not the runner who gets the ale, but the bride, according to the Reverend William Carr, in his Dialect of Craven, in the westriding of the County of York, published 1828. In his definition of bride-ale, he says that “Immediately after the performance of the marriage ceremony a ribbon is proposed as the prize of contention, either for a foot or a horse race, to the future residence of the bride … hoever had the good fortune to arrive first at the bride’s house requested to be shewn to the chamber of the new-married pair. After he had turned down the bed clothes, he returns, carrying in his hand a tankard of warm ale previously prepared, to meet the bride, to whom he triumphantly offers his humble beverage. He may go some distance before he meets her, as nothing is deemed more unlucky than for the bride and bridegroom to gallop. The bride then presents to him the ribbon, as the honourable reward of his victory. Thus adorned he accompanies the bridal party to their residence.”

  44. The French Wikipedia article on brioche gives some info on various types of brioche, and dates the word from the 16th century. (Note: I find the article very poorly written).
    The painting by Chardin (18th C) shows a strange-looking brioche, resembling a type of hat with a flat top. The traditional brioche has a higher bottom part and is topped by a sort of spherical bun, smaller than the part that is shown in the picture.
    The apocryphal sentence “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” and its attribution to various princesses is discussed at length in the English article on “let them eat cake”, which shows that Marie-Antoinette cannot possibly have been the originator.

  45. My wife makes brioches. It’s quite easy, you just propose marriage and wait about fifteen years.

  46. My wife made what could have been called a cobbler last night. She used Earth Balance Buttery Sticks for shortening.

  47. David Marjanović says

    The wife of Louis XIV

    Oops. I must have misread “14” as “16”, or something.

    I would have expected that they were brought in by Marie Antoinette, in other words that the French got the challah (aka khale or birches) recipe from Austria

    I don’t know any of these terms.

    Marie-Antoinette cannot possibly have been the originator

    It was part of the media campaign that brought about the French Revolution. The entire royal family seems to have thought that all the rumors were completely inconsequential; they don’t seem to have understood that there (now) was such a thing as a public opinion. In hindsight it’s all pretty baffling.

  48. It was part of the media campaign that brought about the French Revolution. The entire royal family seems to have thought that all the rumors were completely inconsequential; they don’t seem to have understood that there (now) was such a thing as a public opinion. In hindsight it’s all pretty baffling.
    David, you are projecting the modern notion of “media campaign” into the 18th century, yet claim to be baffled that “public opinion” was not a familiar phenomenon. You can’t have it both ways: a media campaign can be mounted only when there is “public opinion” seen as such. Do you believe that pre-revolutionary France was essentially the same as pre-election Austria, only without political ads on TV ?

  49. I think David’s point was that some acknowledged the power of “public opinion”, but the royal family were not among them.

  50. Yes, that was precisely the time when “public opinion” was coming into being. The royals are always the last to know.

  51. Hm, I don’t believe that public opinion came into being. It’s described in the Bible and brokered for money in ancient Rome. But there’s a case to be made that printed mass media had a new power to rally it.

  52. By there’s a case to be made I mean that I think so, but I’d hope to get away without having to produce a sustainable argument for it.

  53. (Marie-Antoinette)
    The point was that “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” was a phrase commonly attributed to an unnamed and probably fictitious princess, and later to actual ones, years before Marie-Antoinette was brought to France as a young girl barely into her teens.
    (challah) Challah is not brioche. I have eaten both.

  54. “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” was a phrase commonly attributed to an unnamed and probably fictitious princess
    To put it more concretely, marie-lucie, the very English WiPe article on “let them eat cake” to which you referred us says that the first occurrence of the words, as attributed to a princess, is found in the Confessions of Rousseau:

    Finally I recalled the last resort of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: “Let them eat brioche.”

    The article presents various explanations and suppositions brought forth for this bit of Rousseau, who was a story-teller in all senses (and with a nice line in political philosophy). Earlier this year I read Feuchtwanger’s late novel about him, Narrenweisheit oder Tod und Verklärung des Jean-Jacques Rousseau [Fool’s Wisdom, or Death and Transfiguration of Jean-Jacques Rousseau]. Feuchtwanger presents Rousseau in an ambiguous light well-suited to the subject.
    By the way, marie-lucie, I initially wondered whether “last resort” gets the sense of pis-aller, which I don’t quite understand in this context:

    Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.

    I think the English is clever because it can be taken to mean “last resort as to what to say” and “last resort as to what to do”. Is that also how pis-aller is working here ?

  55. Grumbly, the phrase is indeed first found in Rousseau, but the context does not suggest that he invented it. “First attested in writing” does not mean that it did not circulate orally. The article says that before Marie-Antoinette it was attributed to other female members of the royal family, over two earlier generations, but there is no definite attribution (an actual utterance by a specific princess might have been recorded in someone’s memoirs), so this might have been the equivalent of an urban myth.
    pis-aller means literally “worse-go” or “worse-do”. It does not have the connotation of “last” or “finally” as in English but of having to choose a less adequate alternative or substitute when the best one is not possible. In this case, the “worse” alternative suggested by the possibly apocryphal princess would actually be a better one, IF it was available. Rousseau’s use is ironic, but otherwise there is no ambiguity in the use of the word.

  56. David Marjanović says

    But there’s a case to be made that printed mass media had a new power to rally it.

    That’s what I mean.

  57. Challah is not brioche
    No, I’ve eaten both too. Nor is a croissant exactly what the Ottoman Empire left at the gates of Vienna, most probably. I’m no expert in the history and evolution of food, but I’d have thought that once a baking idea has been invented (egg bread, for instance), then the recipe’s going to be adjusted a little bit by everyone who tries it and pretty soon you’ve got more than one product.

  58. PlasticPaddy says

    I had thought bruiloft referred to lifting the bride as in a (staged) abduction by the groom or the carrying across the threshold of her new home. It is hard (for me at least) to distinguish between the PIE reflexes of lift and lope. Lift appears to come from a PIE reflex meaning “peel away” which could easily extend to the extrication of the bride from her former ties, household and obligations.

  59. My eyesight is really deteriorating — when I first read your comment, I thought it said “the extrication of the bride from her former lies.”

  60. PlasticPaddy says

    Well, I am quite late on this thread☺ and I did not want to write “…household, ties…” which is logically better but for me interferes with a fixed phrase “household ties”. I should have just cut the ties.

  61. No, no, there was nothing wrong with your comment at all — I was complaining about my eyesight, not your wording! If you’d written “…household, ties…” I’d have been just as likely to read it as “…household, lies…”.

  62. PlasticPaddy says

    On the one hand Dutch etymologies try very hard to get the verb for running in (either the bride dances in a jumping way or everybody runs to the groom’s house, perhaps to avoid pursuit because they have kidnapped the bride). On the other hand the spelling bruiluft occurs. But the German evidence seems unambiguously laufen not lüften.

  63. The OED updated the bridelope entry in June 2019; see the Update above for the new (far more detailed) etymology. The first citation:

    OE (Northumbrian) Lindisf. Gospels: Matt. xxii. 2 Simile factum est regnum caelorum homini regi qui fecit nubtias filio suo : gelic geworden wæs ric heofna cynemenn seðe dyde ða færmo uel brydlopa sune his.

  64. Bridelope is lucky to be in the OED at all, considering that its last attestation was in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1076 (all the others are in the Lindisfarne Gospels), and their usual policy is to exclude words that haven’t been attested since 1150. Presumably it’s in because bride is an important word and they want all its compounds included.

    I wonder how many other words evaded the 1150 cutoff?

    The spelling bridelope is anachronistic, since the only actually attested forms are brydlope or brydhlop. But they spelled it as if it had survived, in order to put it together with all the other bride words.

  65. Aha, I thought I’d seen another one that had only OE citations! It’s therking, “The period between daylight and darkness, either at sunrise or sunset; twilight”. That link will work even without a subscription for perhaps a few more days, because it’s linked from the OED’s quarterly update blog post from December 2021; it’ll go back to subscription-only by the time the next update goes up.

    Like bridelope, therking got in by riding the coattails of an important word, in this case dark, which was revised along with all its relatives. Therking is thought to be “a variant or alteration” of darking. And like bridelope, the headword’s spelling has been modernized — the only actual citations are spelled þeorcung(e) — in order to put it together with its relatives therk (adj., v.) and therkness, which survived into Middle English.

    Therking has only two citations, both translations of Latin crepusculum; one is a Latin-English glossary and the other is Regularis Concordia, a tenth-century plan for reforming the monasteries, in Latin with English interlinear glosses. Both sources are new to the OED, unavailable to the old editions — the monastery plan wasn’t published in a proper scholarly edition until 1954, the glossary not until 2011. Regularis Concordia has the oldest known use of many word senses, sometimes antedating the previous OED by hundreds of years: for example, it’s now the first citation for British in the sense “Of or relating to Britain, or to its people or language” (earlier senses referred specifically to the Brittonic Celtic peoples or languages).

    Just another example of how even for Old English, lexicography is still advancing.

  66. Wonderful, thanks for sharing that!

  67. David Marjanović says

    “a variant or alteration”

    That sounds like the beginning of a fascinating story.

  68. Richard Ellis says

    Can we please have the instructions for making the cocktails?

    There must be a PhD or two on “Naming and Shaming – Cocktail Names and The Dissipation of Language”.

  69. John Cowan says

    Then there is andelope, a literary-criticism term invented (or perhaps only popularized) by B.R. Myers. He defines it as “a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction ‘and’. Like the ‘evocative’ slide-show and the Consumerland shopping-list, the andelope encourages skim-reading while keeping up the appearance of ‘literary’ length and complexity. But like the slide-show (and unlike the shopping-list), the andelope often clashes with the subject matter, and the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the methodical meal that is being described.”

    Here is his example, from The Crossing by Cormac MacCarthy: “He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.” Urgh.

  70. Urgh indeed. And it evokes Prévert’s Déjeuner du Matin, the very opposite of urgh and the very opposite otherwise.

  71. I really don’t understand why Cormac MacCarthy gets so much praise. He can be effective, but so can lots of better writers.

  72. David Marjanović says

    “He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.” Urgh.

    That conveys to me that it’s all done fast and without any pauses.

  73. DM: I’m not sure about that, especially out of context. It could just be a style.
    If you don’t mind goopy Country music, cf. Patty Loveless’s You Don’t Even Know Who I am (lyrics). This implies a deliberate sequence, not a fast one. Maybe if the lines were put together with conjunctions and no punctuation it would have come off differently.

  74. PlasticPaddy says

    So you had to get rid of the flowery prepositional phrases and the big comfortable words and go in stripped naked except for the one weapon you were allowed to take in with you: the word and . You were allowed to use that to make a sentence longer if you wanted to and then it would look braver and more able to survive. You could, if you really wanted to, put in a lot of ands , and they didn’t count, and with luck the sentence never had to end, you could go on and on, and tell the story that a man had to tell and say what had to be said about birth and love and death and whoring and women and whiskey, and do that with grace or arrogance or cynicism or however you wanted to do it, and never worry about whether the parts of your story really made any sense or even whether they went together syntactically, because ultimately the middle of a long sentence is like the middle of an ocean, you will have lost sight of both the shore that is behind you and the one that is ahead of you but in the end it doesn’t matter because you are here except finally you are talked out and you don’t want to say any more, or you have no more time for it and it is not good in you, but you don’t know how to stop anymore, to turn the writing off and let the damned sentence die the death that it was meant to die. . . .”

  75. Rodger C says

    I’ve always regarded Cormac McCarthy as a writer of nihilistic bullshit wrapped up in glittery prose.

  76. As my brother put it: “Where else can you go if you want read a story with a tree full of dead babies?”

  77. ktschwarz says

    The access to therking is still open. Sometimes they close these promoted pages after a while, sometimes they leave them open.

  78. John Cowan says

    PlasticPaddy: That could easily have been Faulkner or McCarthy. See also the infamous who’s will passage, which is in fact McCarthy. (At this point I will spare myself the effort of writing and everyone else the effort of reading my hemicranial reflections on the various McCarthys, John, Paul, Gene, Joe, Cormacan [that really is the hypocoristic] ….) But here is B. R. Myers’s explanation of Cormacan’s appeal to critics:

    As a fan of movie westerns, I refuse to quibble with the myth that a wild landscape can bestow epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But novels tolerate epic language only in moderation. To record with the same somber majesty every aspect of a cowboy’s life, from a knife fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch. Here we learn that out west even a hangover is something special.

    [They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool. (All the Pretty Horses)

    It is a rare passage that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals. But “wild animals” isn’t epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about some rude provisional species, as if your average quadruped had impeccable table manners and a pension plan. [I don’t think this remark is quite fair: McCarthy is obviously using rude ‘imperfectly made’ here.]

    Then he switches from the horses’ perspective to the narrator’s, though just what something imperfect and malformed refers to is unclear. The last half sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace the same thing that is lodged in the heart of being? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds. [A Gorgon in a Pool was Myers’s working title.]

    No novelist with a sense of the ridiculous would write such nonsense. Although his characters sometimes rib one another, McCarthy is among the most humorless writers in American history. In this excerpt the subject is horses.

    He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold … Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and that it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal … Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses vanish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothing out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing. (All the Pretty Horses)

    The further we get from our cowboy past, the loonier becomes the hippophilia we attribute to it. More to the point, especially considering The New York Times’s praise of All the Pretty Horses for its “realistic dialogue,” is the stiltedness with which the conversation is reproduced. The cowboys are supposed to be talking to a Mexican in Spanish, which is a stretch to begin with, but from the tone in which the conversation is set down you’d think it was ancient Hebrew. And shouldn’t Grady satisfy our curiosity by finding out what a horse’s soul looks like, instead of pursuing a hypothetical point of equine theology? You half expect him to ask how many horses’ souls can fit on the head of a pin.

    All the Pretty Horses received the National Book Award in 1992. “Not until now,” the judges wrote in their fatuous citation, “has the unhuman world been given its own holy canon.” What a difference a pseudo-biblical style makes; this so-called canon has little more to offer than the conventional belief that horses, like dogs, serve us well enough to merit exemption from an otherwise sweeping disregard for animal life. (No one ever sees a cow’s soul.) McCarthy’s fiction may be less fun than the “genre” western, but its world view is much the same. So is the cast of characters: the quiet cowboys, the women who “like to see a man eat,” the howling savages. (In fairness to the western: McCarthy’s depiction of Native Americans in Blood Meridian [1985] is far more offensive than anything in Louis L’ Amour.)

    The critics, however, are too much impressed by the muscles of his prose to care about the heart underneath. Even The Village Voice has called McCarthy “a master stylist, perhaps without equal in American letters.” Robert Hass wrote much of his review of The Crossing in an earnest imitation of McCarthy’s style:

    The boys travel through this world, tipping their hats, saying “yessir” and “nosir” and “si” and “es verdad” and “claro” to all its potential malice, its half-mad philosophers, as the world washes over and around them, and the brothers themselves come to be as much arrested by the gesture of the quest as the old are by their stores of bitter wisdom and the other travelers, in the middle of life, in various stages of the arc between innocence and experience, by whatever impulses have placed them on the road.

    The vagueness of that encomium must annoy McCarthy, who prides himself on the way he tackles “issues of life and death” head on. In interviews he presents himself as a man’s man with no time for pansified intellectuals—a literary version, if you will, of Dave Thomas, the smugly parochial old-timer in the Wendy’s commercials. It would be both unfair and a little too charitable to suggest that this is just a pose. When McCarthy says of Marcel Proust and Henry James, “I don’t understand them. To me, that’s not literature,” I have a sinking feeling he’s telling the truth.

    “Where else can you go if you want read a story with a tree full of dead babies?”

    Cordwainer Smith, probably, somewhere in space-three.

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