Back to the September issue of Poetry; this time I want to praise a poem by Mike Chasar called “Conches on Christmas,” which happily for all of us is online (happily for you because you can read the whole thing, for me because it makes it a lot easier to quote). I love rhyme and meter and the whole kitbag of traditional poetic technique, but I’m aware that English poetry can no longer be constrained within those bounds (it requires a tremedous effort of will and imagination to write a good sonnet these days), so I’m especially happy when a poet is able to dance comfortably to the new music in an old pattern. I read the first stanza:

Diluvian, draggled and derelict posse, this
barnacled pod so pales
next to everything we hear of red tides and pilot whales
that a word like “drama” makes me sound remiss

and relaxed into pleasurable anticipation when I realized the rhymes were unobtrusive and exact, the meter irregular but confident, and the syntax complex enough to make reading further a compelling adventure:

except that there
was a kind of littoral drama in the way the shells
silently, sans the heraldry of bells,
neatly, sans an astrological affair,

and swiftly, sans a multitude of feet, flat-out arrived—

and at that I simultaneously cracked up at the transition from the solemn “silently, sans the heraldry of bells” to the bathetic “swiftly, sans a multitude of feet” (which instantly brought to mind “And this was odd, because, you know,/ They hadn’t any feet“) and marveled at the sonic sculpture of the line “and swiftly, sans a multitude of feet, flat-out arrived”—and I gobbled up the rest of the poem with undiminished pleasure, which I now urge you to do. When you get back, you can hit the Extended Entry for a few linguistic observations.

1) Perhaps the first thing that attracted me, even before I saw the poem itself, was its title, and specifically the word “conches.” I have always pronounced conch /kanch/ in my head, but ever since I learned that the “correct” pronunciation was /kank/ I’ve tried to say it that way, feeling that the /ch/ was some miserable bit of spelling pronunciation I should put behind me. Well, here was an actual poet (and quite a learned one, I found when I got to the poem) who clearly pronounced it the same way, since if you pronounce it /kank/ the plural has to be “conchs.” Validated, I resolved to have the courage of my inner voice.

2) In the ninth stanza, I was sent to my dictionaries by the word drasty (“to my drasty stretch of shore”); having tried Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, the AHD, and the New Oxford American in vain, I went to the OED and discovered it means “Dreggy; fig. vile, worthless, ‘rubbishy’” (from drast ‘dregs, lees’)—and hasn’t been used since the early 16th century. Unsure if this was the intended meaning, I took advantage of the miracle of the internet and asked the author, who said that it was; furthermore, it was a reminiscence of Chaucer’s tale of Sir Thopas, where Chaucer is interrupted by the Host and told, “Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!”

3) This tied in neatly with my other question to him, about the proper pronunciation of his name (you all know how obsessed I am with pronunciation): it turns out Chasar is an anglicized version of Hungarian császár ’emperor’ (borrowed from Slavic cěsárĭ, the origin of tsar as well) and is pronounced much like Chaucer. So the Chaucerian reference was something of an in-joke. (As an extra tidbit, I’ll point out that the Hungarian word is first attested in 1405, just a few years after Chaucer’s death.)

So I intend to inform the OED that the word drasty has been revived and brought into gen-u-wine contemporary use in a 2005 poem, and I want to see it in the next edition with the Chasar citation. If they’re going to include Pound’s undigested quotes from a century or two previous as contemporary (1934 E. POUND Eleven New Cantos xxxvii. 32 “If you will give me A pinch of your excellent Maccaboy snuff,” quoting Shepherd quoting Benton quoting Van Buren; 1940 E. POUND Cantos lxx. 177 “Treasons, felonies, new praemunires,” quoting a John Adams letter from, I believe, the 1770s), they can damn well include this. And I urge others to start using it too. We’ll get ’em all back!


  1. Ben Zimmer says

    Interestingly enough, drasty was sometimes misread/misprinted as drafty (that darned long s, no doubt), and it appears that way in some editions of Chaucer. In fact, Sir Walter Scott (mis)quotes Chaucer with that spelling in his “Essay on Romance” (1823):

    But though the minstrels were censured
    by De la Brunne for lack of skill and memory, and
    the poems which they recited were branded as
    “drafty rhymings,” by the far more formidable
    sentence of Chaucer, their acceptation with the
    public in general must have been favourable…

  2. Patrick Linehan says

    …and when did the “correct” pronunciation take over?
    from the OED:
    (kɒŋk, kɒnʃ) [ad. L. concha bivalve shell, a. Gr. κόγχη mussel or cockle, shell-like cavity, etc. Cf. It. conca, Pr. conca, concha, Sp. and Pg. concha, F. conque (16th c.), formerly also conche. The earlier Eng. form was perh. conche, pl. conches, from Fr.: many pronounce (kɒnʃ, kɒnʃɪz). In L. the name was extended to other shells, as a whelk, a snail-shell, the shell-shaped Triton’s trumpet, etc., and these senses passed into the modern langs.]

  3. I’ve been saying “conch” wrong all this time too! Thank god I live inland.
    The non-ch “ch” of the other big word in the title, “Christmas” suggests to me that the poet may be toying with us. Curse him!

  4. in the crunch
    i pronounce it conch
    though i feel like a lunk
    hearing conk

  5. Don’t know how much to read into this but “conchs” and “conches” get roughly equal number of hits when restricted to English-language pages. (Without that restriction “conches” gets way more.) Here is a page with an interesting, mellifluous title and some nice pictures.

  6. All the little boys in every version of the Lord of the Flies movies seemed to all be able to pronounce it correctly. That in and of itself makes the movie version unrealistic.

  7. I just checked, and the OED’s drasty entry has still not been revised from its musty (if not drasty) 1897 form. I trust they’ve got the Chasar quote ready to use when they get around to the update.

  8. The OED’s entry for conch is not fully updated, but the pronunciation section is, and they specify that in the Bahamian/Florida Keys slang sense (meaning someone from there), only the /k/ pronunciation is used. (That sense was revised in 2021 in a Caribbean-focused update.)

    On Youglish, it seems that people who fish for them, cook them, and eat them use the /k/ pronunciation; the pronunciation is variable mostly in the musical-instrument and architectural senses.

    …and when did the “correct” pronunciation take over? … OED: … The earlier Eng. form was perh. conche, pl. conches, from Fr.

    That’s 1891 etymology. The /k/ pronunciation has been there all along; the Middle English Dictionary has some citations spelled conk and conke (from sources that probably weren’t available in 1891).

    In French the two pronunciations have split into separate words: conque (shellfish) and conche (small bay or basin, from the shape of a mussel shell; also the source of “conching” in chocolate-making).

    Can’t help noticing: in the poem

    a fine set of unwrappable presents

    is a still unpacked: the poet has been talking about how he *can’t* open the shells.

  9. Good catch!

  10. Further etymological intrigue: in 1891, the OED didn’t consider whether Greek κόγχη ‘mussel or cockle’ had any further ancestry. Sometime later, a PIE source was proposed to link it with Sanskrit śaṅkhá ‘conch, shell’, but apparently the sound correspondences don’t match between Greek χ and Sanskrit kh. And naively, I wouldn’t expect the Proto-Indo-Europeans to know about marine shellfish, would they?

    Beekes suggests that the γχ cluster indicates a Pre-Greek loanword, in which case the Sanskrit might be from the same loan source. It’ll be interesting to see the revisions, both in the OED and Merriam-Webster, which has been willing to give a lot of space to discussions of possible Pre-Greek sources, e.g. their etymology of pharynx.

  11. David Marjanović says

    apparently the sound correspondences don’t match between Greek χ and Sanskrit kh

    Yes; χ is supposed to match Sanskrit gh and j, and Sanskrit kh is supposed to match Greek tenues.

  12. Greek κόγχη ‘mussel or cockle’… Sanskrit śaṅkhá ‘conch, shell’… I wouldn’t expect the Proto-Indo-Europeans to know about marine shellfish

    Leaving aside the question of where exactly the speakers of Proto-Indo-European lived, and where the speakers of differentiated inner Indo-European dialects lived, and whether they knew the Black and Caspian Seas, there are nevertheless freshwater mussels they could have known, as well as other molluscs with shells. (The zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) and the quagga mussel (Dreissena rostriformis), which have spread as invasives in the rivers and lakes of western Europe and North America and caused considerable damage to freshwater ecosystems, originated in the Ukraine and southern Russia. I am even told that these two species are edible if you can collect them from unpolluted waters and clean them properly.) In any case, ornaments made from shells, marine and freshwater, nacreous or otherwise attractive, can be distributed widely as trade goods.

    For a speculative approach to the etymology of κόγχη along these lines (differing from Beekes’ approach, p. 86 here, under under κόχλος), there is Mallory and Adams (1997) Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, p. 512, under the heading sʜᴇʟʟғɪsʜ in the right-hand column here.

    The reconstruction of ḱonk-h₂-o- as ‘that which hangs’ offered there by Adams requires aspiration of *k to *kʰ by *h₂ in certain environments on the way to Greek, something that not all scholars accept. (For the curious who would be interested in a recent compilation of evidence supporting aspiration arising in this way in Greek—made from a skeptical viewpoint, however—there is a two-part paper by de Drecker here and here. Such aspiration by *h₂ in Indo-Iranian is secure.) The o-stem derivative type Adams mentions is that proposed for Vedic rátha- ‘chariot’ from *rót-*h₂-o- derived from a *rot-eh₂- ‘wheel’ to be seen in Latin rota, for instance.

    I was curious about this isolated Latvian form sence that Adams mentions. (Pokorny lists it as a cognate to κόγχη too.) The word didn’t show up in most Latvian dictionaries that I consulted, but Konstantīns Karulis (1992) Latviešu etimoloģijas vārdnīca, vol. II: P–Ž, p. 153, mentions sence and glosses it as gliemežvāks (‘bivalve shell’). Karulis discusses sence in the entry for the standard Latvian verb sanēt ‘to buzz, hum, murmur, rustle, sough’. As for the etymology of sence, Karulis associates it to the dialectal variant senēt, which he glosses with Latvian skanēt ‘to make a sound or noise, resound, ring, chime’. I gather from this that the shell would then be ‘that which makes a sound, resounds’, according to Karulis. Would this be in reference to the jingling, clinking, clacking sound made when small shells strike each other? (And not to the peculiar resonance (cf. sanēt ‘hum, buzz’) heard when a large gastropod shell is held up to the ear, or to the use of large marine gastropod shells as musical instruments?) Karulis says the Latvian roots *san-, dialectal sen-, reflect the PIE root now usually reconstructed as *su̯enh₂-, *su̯onh₂- ‘to sound, resound’ (cf. Vedic svanati, Latin sonō ‘make a sound’, Old Irish seinnid ‘play an instrument’). For the purported phonology, compare Latvian sapnis and Lithuanian sapnas ‘dream’, the latter directly from a *su̯ópnos (cf. the root *su̯ep- also in Vedic svápna-, Old Norse svefn, Latin somnus ‘sleep’, Old English swefan ‘to sleep’, etc.). As far as I can tell, Karulis is silent on the proposed connection of sence to κόγχη.

    (The usual ancient Greek word for the gastropod trumpet shell, used like the iconic śaṅkhá- of India, was κῆρυξ.)

  13. And naively, I wouldn’t expect the Proto-Indo-Europeans to know about marine shellfish, would they?

    I suppose they might have known about conchses as a trade item.

  14. Xerîb: Thanks, as always, for your dogged detective work — sorry your comment spent half the day in moderation!

  15. ‘that which hangs’…
    ‘that which makes a sound, resounds’…

    For all that IE-nists practically invented rigor in historical linguistics, IE-nist literature is swamped with these kind of speculative nominalizations. It makes me very uneasy to think that so much clay is alloyed in the feet upon which the discipline stands.

  16. Beekes suggests that the γχ cluster indicates a Pre-Greek loanword
    Well, Beekes assumes Pre-Greek for every word that doesn’t have a cast-iron etymology…

  17. David Marjanović says

    For all that IE-nists practically invented rigor in historical linguistics, IE-nist literature is swamped with these kind of speculative nominalizations. It makes me very uneasy to think that so much clay is alloyed in the feet upon which the discipline stands.

    They’re not all equally speculative. The better papers identify the suffixes and their meanings.

    In the older IE languages and all reconstructions of PIE, the great majority of roots are quite unambiguously verb roots, and most nouns are composed of verb roots and extra material, some (or most) of which remains productive in derivation. The ancient Sanskrit grammarians already had arguments over whether all roots were at some level verbal (and seem to have reached the current consensus of “most, but not all”).

    Well, Beekes assumes Pre-Greek for every word that doesn’t have a cast-iron etymology…

    Worse, he built a single “Pre-Greek” language from it. There are pretty clearly at least two (one or two IE, one not).

  18. Of course they are not equally speculative, it’s just that there are uncomfortably many questionable ones in the literature going unquestioned.

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