Fun with Literature

I’ve moved my blogging activities to a literature/satire site that I’m running with a colleague from my time at Oxford; it’s called ClickityLit. Our focus is fun internet stuff like quizzes and listicles, but for folks who like books. We’ve got quizzes about the Brontës and silly songs about Tolstoy; if that sounds like your thing, you should check it out!  It’s tons of fun. The genre is satire and the tone is irreverent, so if that’s not to your tastes, probably best to skip it. Here’s a glimpse so you can get an idea of what we do:


1. The Heart Wants What it Wants

For the classic death-enthusiast, there’s no poet like Emily Dickinson. She owned death poetry like Coleridge owned coke*:

The Heart asks Pleasure — first —
And then — Excuse from Pain —
And then — those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering —

And then — to go to sleep —
And then — if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die —

*OK, it was opium, but coke sounded better, so eat my assonance.

Speaking of Coleridge….

2. One for the Masochists

If your morbid sense of despair and futility tends to take the form of thinking enviously about the people who get to die whilst dwelling on the horror of your own continued existence, then these lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are for you:

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.


The Mythical “Ye”

BeowulfIf you’ve ever found yourself in a place where the local tourism industry thrives on anachronism, you’ll be very familiar with shop signs that begin “Ye Olde…”

These signs try to convey a cozy old-fashioned atmosphere through forms of language that are from the past–or, at least, that seem to be from the past.  What’s particularly interesting about “ye” is that while it does have a traceable connection to older versions of English, it’s not the connection we might expect.

The “y” in “ye” derives from the Old English letter þ (called thorn) which in turn comes from the rune of the same name.  If you look at the image on the right (from the famous first page of the Beowulf manuscript; click to enlarge), you can see the letter thorn beginning the word þeod halfway through the first regular line (it’s just below the big ‘A’ of the opening words).  You can also see it at the beginning of the the next line (the second regular line), as the first letter in þrymThorn was initially written only with straight strokes (like all runes), but as time and pens went on, it began to be written with more curves.  This made it look lot like y, especially to those looking back at older manuscripts once the letter þ had fallen out of use.  The letter þ was pronounced ‘th’ (hence the name “thorn”), and was used in Anglo-Saxon England to spell the extremely common word þe — which means “the”.

This confusion of þ with y, has given us signs like “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe,” and confused an awful lot of us into thinking that once upon a time the English used to say “ye,” when really they just said plain old “the.”

I learned this interesting tidbit from Oxford Professor Simon Horobin’s podcast on the History of English Pronunciation, which is full of all sorts of other fun stuff and can be found at:

Before Dollars, There Were Cows

The root of the word pecuniary—meaning “pertaining to money”—is the Latin word pecus, which means cattleIn Latin, the forms pecunia and pecuniarus also exist; pecunia came to mean “money,” but it initially meant “riches in cattle.”

A similar development may have happened with Old English feoh (where the ‘h’ is pronounced like the ‘ch’ in the Scottish work loch), which is one of the possible origins of our modern English word fee.

Etymology! Isn’t it fun?