Khayyam, again, and disappearing words

apple blossom
"...under the apple bough"
Yesterday’s post reminded me of a glosa – posted below – but then led me on in leaps and bounds to thinking about vocabulary. Specifically, about the word ‘bough’: when, and how, did I learn it?

It’s not exactly the sort of word that crops up in childhood conversation, so I’m pretty sure I must have read it. Which could either have been in a story or in a poem. Or, I suppose, at Christmas, when we “deck[ed] the halls with boughs of holly”. Perhaps that’s the most likely, as would explain how I learned to pronounce it, too.

The word ‘bough’ probably crops up in plenty of older stories and poems, but how much new writing contains such words?

Since so many of the traditional stories are now only known through films, or through simplified or modernised re-tellings, does that mean the older words are being lost? And if so, what are they being replaced by? I don’t think even 600 new pokémon names are a fair exchange for the loss of a word that’s come to us from Old English.

It’s not as if I can do much to help continue the word’s existence, though. Even if I were living in an English-speaking country, it’s not one I would use very often. And I am reluctant to use it in most poetry as it seems too ‘poetic’. In general, I think my poems should be written in the words I would use in my own speech and writing.

Still, perhaps by putting the word ‘bough’ into this blog post several times, and by posting this glosa with its cabeza taken from Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, I am helping the word live on a little longer.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

I had two loaves till you said it was fitting
to swap one for a hyacinth; that’s how,
now the lily’s dead, you’ll find me sitting
here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough.

A single loaf ain’t much, it’s poor indeed,
but I’ll admit that, here and now,
more than a second loaf, I need
a flask of wine, a book of verse – and thou.

Cheese perhaps, and, though I’d do without
the mayo, butter, salt and watercress,
I’d rather like you to be here, flat out
beside me singing in the Wilderness.

In fact I’d ditch this (now stale) loaf of bread
if you’d just bring some wine; I’d show you how
– you, me, some booze – we need no feather bed
and wilderness is Paradise enow.


Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

4 thoughts on “Khayyam, again, and disappearing words”

  1. And that’s before you come to places like “Loughborough”, pronounced “Lufbra”.

    When speaking to some of my work colleagues (teens), they didn’t know the words to many Nursery Rhymes; but could quote
    “I want to be the very best (like no-one ever was)” with the same nostalgia that the more mature would treat “Wee Willie Winkie”.

    Perhaps we still are wanting to catch them all?


    1. Place names (probably) won’t die out through disuse, though.

      Yes, cultural references will change, and new phrases replace the ones our parents quoted (I had to Google the one you quoted – it’s way after my time).

      But it’s the potential loss of words that’s worrying me. I don’t think they are being replaced, I think our active vocabulary is just getting smaller, and fewer words are being used to express the same amount of information. (Or is there simply less information to discuss as our main stimulus is the computer or phone screen where all we need to do most of the time is c&p links?)

      Living in a non-English speaking environment makes this difficult for me to gauge: I suspect my own lexis is shrinking because it’s not being exercised, but my situation isn’t typical. Am I misjudging what’s happening elsewhere?


      1. Vocabulary changes though – adapts to purpose – while you won’t hear “Zounds” anymore, you wouldn’t have heard “OMG” in those times. Even in it’s non-acrynomic (?) form.

        Antibiotics, motion-capture and para-normality would be foreign to Fitzgerald; but could this be due to multiculturalism? Not just differing races, but different ideas of what culture could be? Has “ditty” become “flash-fiction”?

        Perhaps there’s simply too many cultures to cope with, and we’re forced to rely on shared ideas rather than specifics. When someone says “I’ll talk to you later.” that could mean phone, speech, text, Skype, or video. It’d be tough to render all of those possibilities as “I’ll communicate with you in some form at a later date.”

        Maybe we just need a company’s product to pick up Bough so it can re-enter the language; and then you can Facebook your Bough score. Or maybe that’s a worse idea…


      2. Of course language changes and adapts, and we need new words – or adaptations of existing words – to deal with new concepts and we will lose words that refer to concepts that are no longer relevant.

        ‘Bough’ clearly isn’t lost yet, but if it is only used in ‘literature’, there will soon be a generation who never learn it. I’m not worried that they won’t know what (e.g.) “withies” are, as that has a very specific use and it will remain in use for the few for whom it is relevant.

        Really, though, I’m concerned about simple words with a thousand-year pedigree that describe daily concepts that are visible right outside the window and haven’t changed in centuries. (Yes, people who live in high-rise flats may not have trees in sight, but I don’t think trees are an alien concept to most English-speakers yet.) And I’m interested in how we learn word new vocabulary: if it’s mainly through the simplified international language that is used on the web, I think our language must automatically become poorer.


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