I’ve completely succumbed to the Troyat biography discussed in this post (and Yana Weinstein convinced me I was wrong to make fun of the word “sibilant”), and today it taught me a fairly useless but interesting word, gabion. Young Lieutenant Tolstoy, having gotten bored with swanning around the general staff HQ well behind the front lines near the Danube during the Crimean War, asks to be sent to where the action is, in the Crimea, and winds up in Sebastopol: “Assigned to the 3rd light battery of the 14th Artillery Brigade, he found to his annoyance that he was quartered in the city itself, far from the fortifications and outworks.” Troyat describes the “strange mixture of ‘camp life’ and ‘town life'” in the city, then says:

Closer to the fortifications, the town assumed a more tragic aspect. Houses in ruins, roadways transformed into pitted dumps, bombs half-buried in the mud, the smell of carrion and cannon powder. Stooping over, soldiers crept along the maze of trenches. At the back of a casemate non-commissioned officers played cards by candlelight; sailors picked lice off each other on an esplanade surrounded by gabions; near a cannon a lieutenant rolled a cigarette in yellow paper. Balls whistled. Bombs crashed. The sentinels called out, “Ca-a-non!” or “Mortar!” to give warning.

I was, of course, struck by the word “gabion,” and the context gave no clue as to what it might be, so I went to the OED and found:

gabion [a. F. gabion, ad. It. gabbione augmentative of gabbia cage:—L. cavea. Cf. It. gaggia = F. cage:—cavea: see CAGE.] 1. A wicker basket, of cylindrical form, usually open at both ends, intended to be filled with earth, for use in fortification and engineering.

(You can see a picture of some medieval gabions here.) But it was the second definition that impelled me to post:

2. Used fig. (with allusion to quots. 1638) by Scott.
1638 ADAMSON Muses Threnodie (note), The ornaments of his Cabin, which by a Catachrestic name, he usually calleth Gabions. Ibid. (title of piece), Inventarie of the Gabions, in M. George his Cabinet. a1832 SCOTT in Harper’s Mag. LXXVIII. (1889) 779 [Gabions are] curiosities of small intrinsic value, whether rare books, antiquities, or small articles of the fine or of the useful arts. 1837 LOCKHART Scott (1838) VII. 218 Sir Walter.. began.. to dictate of Laidlaw what he designed to publish in the usual novel shape, under the title of ‘Reliquiæ Trottcosienses, or the Gabions of Jonathan Oldbuck’.

Well, that was intriguing! But my attempts to investigate this Muses Threnodie were foiled; the only texts available online are brief excerpts, like the one linked in the Wikipedia article on the author. If you do a Google Books search, you find that all copies of this book—published in 1638!—are “No preview available.” What the devil, Google?


  1. John Emerson says

    Sailors picked lice off each other….
    Our primate nature will not be suppressed.
    The wife of a friend grew up in the diplomatic service and spent quite a bit of her youth in Africa. Monkeys were omnipresent and friendly, and their greeting ritual involved mutual grooming. She said that when she pretended to groom her monkey friend, she had to make a “tch!” sound as though she were eating the flea. Only then would the monkey’s body relax; otherwise it would keep anticipating the sound and the ritual would be incomplete.

  2. Here’s a better search, showing the 8 results with “Muses Threnodie” in the title. Of those, the 1992 edition is obviously still in copyright (even if some of its parts, or even most of them, are in the public domain), and the British Library refuses to make images of even its public-domain works publicly available, though by what perversion of copyright I do not know. In general, Book Search lists bibliographical details for all the books Google knows about, even if it doesn’t have access to them.
    Disclaimer: I work for Google, but not on book search, and I am not saying anything not publicly known.

  3. It’s in EEBO, as you might expect, but that probably means you need to go to a university library to get at it.

  4. Thanks, John, I hadn’t known about the intitle: search. Anyone know anything about the British Library policy, which on the face of it seems offensively stupid?

  5. The term “gabion” is still in common use by civil engineers and highway construction types for those galvanized, chain-link baskets filled with stones that are used to shore up eroding stream- or riverbanks, usually to protect adjacent roads. I’ve helped fill gabions myself.

  6. Richard Parker says

    Filipinas, at least, still indulge in nagsusinkay (louse picking) quite unashamedly, as a regular social activity.

  7. Gabions, although not so called, are still used by the military – UK bases in Afghanistan are surrounded with Hesco Bastion, heavy-gauge wire baskets lined with plastic sheeting, shipped as flat-pack units, erected and filled with sand, gravel or earth. The main base in Helmand, Camp Bastion, is named after the product.

  8. Thanks, that’s very interesting! Too bad they didn’t keep a perfectly good old word, especially since “bastion” has a very different military meaning.

  9. Homer Mershon says

    Today’s NYT science section makes reference to gabions. I thought you might be interested:
    Some projects use bulldozers to reshape waterways. Others rely on boulders, rock-filled metal baskets called gabions or concrete and other armor to hold rivers in place. Unfortunately, “we have not done enough monitoring to know what works and what doesn’t,” said Chris Conrad, an environmental engineer for the United States Geological Survey, voicing a widely held view.

  10. Bill Walderman says

    Concidentally, I encountered the word “gabion” a few days ago in the course of reading “War and Peace” in Russian. It cropped up in the description of the fortifications hastily constructed by the Russians just before the Battle of Borodino. I reached for my Russian-English dictionary, only to find an English definition that was just as inscrutable to me as the Russian word. Then I noticed that the Russian word was explained in the notes at the end of the Russian text.

  11. “Hesco Bastion” is actually the name of the company that makes them – the baskets themselves are called “Concertainers”, which is even worse, but everyone calls them “Hesco Bastion”.
    “Gabion” may have died out, but “fascine”, another good old sapper’s word, is still in use – army engineering vehicles carry pipe fascines, bundles of plastic pipes which they dump into trenches to allow vehicles to cross them.

  12. “Fascine” as related to “fasces,” those bundles of ‘sticks’ around an axe that the Roman lictors carried, right?
    Now I have a very good mental picture of how these pipe fascines would be used to fill ditches, with the length of each of the many pipes paralleling the banks of the ditch – much easier to transport than long planks, plates, or any other object intended to cross the gap/ditch directly.
    Online search for “Roman Fascine” brings up many interesting books and sites that explain this old-current technology further.

  13. I didn’t think it was a particularly obscure word. When I was in secondary school, um, 20 years ago, gabions were mentioned in our geography textbooks as part of the measures taken to prevent coastal erosion. When I saw the word above I immediatly pictured those cages with stones or concrete blocks that you see sometimes along the coast.

  14. A cylindrical gabion filled with dirt, which soldiers can push before themselves for protection from rifle fire as they dig a trench toward the enemy, is called a sap roller, probably because it is used by sappers or possibly because it is commonly made of saplings.

  15. “Fascine” as related to “fasces,” those bundles of ‘sticks’ around an axe that the Roman lictors carried, right?

    Yes indeed; see this post.

  16. called a sap roller, probably because it is used by sappers

    Sappers are called sappers because they dig saps, or trenches. (The Royal Engineers used to be the Corps of Sappers and Miners and a private soldier is still referred to as “Sapper Smith” rather than “Private Smith”).

    So the sap roller is the roller that you use as you dig your sap. But I wouldn’t like to trust a bundle of saplings to stop a modern rifle bullet.

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