Spring collection

Joe Mc Kay’s “Crazy About Words”
…toasting our language since 2003!

We wake these April mornings to “sparrowy air,” as the poet, Richard Wilbur, so richly put it. Step out early, exult in the bird sounds, and you’ll understand how elegant and apt a phrase that is. It’s doubtful anyone has used it before, as “sparrowy” is not a proper adjective. It’s simply a great example of our language manipulated to serve as poet’s paint.

I enjoy the first color that comes to the woods, the white blossoms of the shadblow bush, on my daily walks here on Eastern Long Island. When all is yet monochromatic in the woods, they appear as cotton balls suspended over vernal ponds, those seasonal wet spots that look like big mucky inkwells and provide spawning ground for wood frogs at this time of year. Later in the season, the shadblow bear sweet purplish-black berries called Juneberries or Serviceberries that Meriwether Lewis wrote, in 1805, saved his expedition from starvation. He must have been in competition with the local Indians who prized the fruit, and the bluebirds too.

I hadn’t heard of a drumlin (an elongated, tapered hill formed by glacial ice acting on the ground moraine) before I read of Don Paterson, a star Scottish poet, who traveled one Spring to Luing, a tiny obscure island in the Hebrides, in search of “intimate exile.” The sign that greeted him on his arrival by ferry assured him he’d come to the right place: Welcome to our Island/ A place to think…a place to be. He describes it as a walker’s utopia and climbed its centrally located drumlin, clearly distinct on the landscape, several times. His success in regenerating himself is described in two lines of his poem, “Luing” … Here, beside the fordable Atlantic/…the fontanelles reopen one by one. Fontanelles…the soft spots on a baby’s head where the skull hasn’t yet fully fused.

The exotic samizdat comes up in connection with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. It’s a Russian word meaning self-published, and refers to protest literature, usually produced or copied by hand and not professional looking. It was first used in the Soviet Union where documents and treatises were illegally hand copied and passed from person to person in secret. Can’t you just picture some angry Vladimir spitting out the word venomously as he seizes a piece of samizdat from a downtrodden worker!

Fifteen years ago this spelling bee season, Rebecca Sealfon made history with her YouTube-worthy, winning response to spell E-U-O-N-Y-M. (If you’d like to see it, just Google the word. It’s only 38 precious seconds long!) It’s from the Greek, eu…good and onym…name, and means an appropriately named person, place, or thing. E.g., Rex Pound is a euonym for a Dog Catcher! Despite its classic root, it only goes back to 1889 in English, when, inspired by Lewis Carroll and other crazies, playing with words became very fashionable. The adjective form is euonymous, not to be confused with the shrub cultivated for its decorative foliage or fruit, named euonymus, pronounced alike and derived from the same root.

As roots like horseradish are Spring comestibles, and as Frank Bruni, former fat food writer, (see his wonderful memoir, “Born Round”) used ipecac in his NYT OpEd recently, I’m considering the word legit for this Spring collection. Ipecac is a Brazilian shrub whose roots and rhizomes are used to make ipecac syrup, an emetic widely used in the last century as an antidote to food poisoning. Bruni used it in describing Rick Santorum’s reaction (“I felt like throwing up”) to JFK’s talk on separation of church and state, “He outdid himself…by casting Camelot as ipecac…” The word is a shortened spelling of the Portuguese name for the plant, ipecacuanha, which comes from the Tupi, spoken by ethnic tribes along the coast of Brazil.

Happy Spring!

Joe Mc Kay
April 18, 2012

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