On the Summer Solstice

With today being the summer solstice, my thoughts naturally turned to . . . William Dunbar’s “A Meditation in Winter.” Why wouldn’t they? Thanks to my brain chemistry, the longest day of the year–about fourteen and a half hours where I live–should be, if not my happiest, at least my least miserable. That doesn’t bode well. This fact, along with my having written about Dunbar recently, reminded me of the poem.

In “A Meditation in Winter,” Dunbar appears to describe what today we call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or winter depression. With SAD, many think, the lack of sunlight causes a decrease in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves one’s mood. Thus, the less serotonin, the more depression.

Dunbar’s poem begins with “dirk and drublie dayis” (dark and murky days) and “mystie vapouris, cluddis, and skyis” (misty vapors, clouds, and skies), a recipe for depression for many people. Nothing, even “sangis, ballattis, and . . . playis” (songs, poems, and plays), can cheer him up. He connects this feeling with winter’s short days, mentioning that “the nycht dois lenthin hours” (the night does lengthen [in] hours).

Despair, the first of several personified concepts, tries to motivate him by warning him of the “trouble and mischeif” he will experience if he doesn’t pull himself together. Patience and Prudence try to reassure him, but Old Age ominously offers his hand and reminds him that he “hes compt to mak” (has a reckoning to make) of the “tyme [he] spendit heir” (time he spent here), presumably on earth. On cue, Death opens his “gettis wyd” (gates wide)  and reminds him of his–and everyone’s–ultimate destination.

Nothing–not even “gold in kist, nor wyne in cowp,/ No ladeis bewtie nor luiffis blys” (gold in chest, nor wine in cup, nor ladies’ beauty, nor love’s bliss”–can stop him from thinking about death. Fortunately, as time passes, the “nycht begynnis to schort” (night begins to shorten) and his “spreit” (spirit) finds comfort. The poem ends on an optimistic note: “Cum, lustie Symmer, with this flowris, / That I may leif in sum disport” (Come, joyful Summer, with your flowers, / So that I may live in some enjoyment).

“Joyful Summer” is here indeed. Just as the long nights of winter pass to make way for the long summer days, though, eventually summer will pass, and we’ll find ourselves in winter again. Let’s enjoy the summer while it’s here.



What a Headache!

After I narrowly avoided a migraine this evening, my thoughts naturally turned to Scottish poet William Dunbar. Dunbar, who wrote during the reign of James IV (1473-1513), was a prolific poet whose works include “On His Heid-Ake.”

Dunbar begins by explaining that “yester nicht” (last night) his “heid did yak” (head ached) to the extent that he could not “mak” (create [poetry]) the next day. (NB: I am putting aside the question of authorial intent and following the apparent convention of assuming that in this case, the speaker is the poet.) More specifically, he states that the headache was a migraine. It feels like it is “perseing [his] brow as ony ganyie” (piercing his eye like an arrow,” and he “scant” can “luik” at “the licht” (can hardly look at the light), feelings that a modern day migraine sufferer also may experience. He tries to write, but he has trouble; he is “unsleipit” (sleep-deprived) and “dullit in dulnes and distres” (made dull by heaviness and distress). He is deprived of his “curage” (spirit), which cannot be revived even by “mirth . . . menstrallie . . .  play, / . . . din . . . danceing [or] deray [disorder].”

Of course, in the course of explaining why he is unable to write a poem, he writes a poem, demonstrating that  what seems to hold one back can actually motivate one to proceed in an unanticipated direction. After all, without the migraine Dunbar still could have written a poem, but it would not have been the one he ended up writing.


Thanks to The Dictionary of the Scots Language for help with a few of the Middle Scots words.


My Hero

It’s been over a month since the 1145th anniversary of his coronation, but Alfred the Great is on my mind. It’s probably because my semester has just ended, and I’ve been reflecting on the past school year. I welcome any wisdom that can help me reflect, and where better to look for wisdom than in the rule of King Alfred?

Alfred the Great, born in 849 and crowned King of Wessex in 871, is known for many things, including uniting the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms,  defending them against the Vikings, improving the navy, and issuing a legal code, as well as promoting education and the use of English. Although the Vita Alfredi (Life of Alfred), written by the Welsh monk Asser, is surely not unbiased–Alfred had invited him, and other men of the Church, to help him in advancing his own education, and they benefited from their positions–surely it possesses grains of truth or, at the very least, reflects Alfred’s values.

According to Asser, Alfred possessed a “sapientiae desiderium” (“desire for wisdom”*), particularly in the “liberalem . . . artem” (“liberal artes”**). His mother, Osburh, encouraged his love of learning when she showed a book to Alfred and his brothers and promised it to whichever son could memorize it first. Alfred, the youngest, won. Years later, he passed down this tradition of learning by providing teachers for his own children and “omnibus pene totius regionis nobilibus infantibus et etiam multis ignobilibus” (“all the noble children in the entire region, and also many common ones”). Making education available to “common” children anticipates much later movements toward universal education.

The young Anglo-Saxon students “utriusque linguae libri, Latinae scilicet et Saxonicae” (“read books in both languages, namely Latin and Saxon [English]”). Alfred was painfully aware of how important both Latin and English were. Although he had read English from a young age, Latin came only later and with the help of “magistros” (“experts”) from “ultra mare” (“beyond the sea”)–whom he rewarded with “magna potestate” (“great power”)–as well as, ultimately, “divino instinctu” (“divine inspiration”).

He knew that he was not alone in his ignorance of Latin. In the preface to his translation of Pope Gregory’s Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Rule, known more commonly as Pastoral Care), he famously wrote, “S clæne heo wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swiðe feawa wæron       behionan Humbre ðe ðiora ðeninga cuðen understondan on Englisc, oððe furðum an ærendgewrit of Lædene on Englisc areccean; ond ic wene ðætte noht monige begiondan Humbre næren” (“So thoroughly had it [learning] declined in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English, or even translate a written letter from Latin to English; and I think that there were not many beyond the Humber”***). After this demonstration of England’s state of educational disrepair, Alfred points out the dangers of an educational and religious system that relies on a little-known language to transmit knowledge and enjoins the reader to  

“[g]eðenc hwelc witu us ða becomon for ðisse worulde, ða ða we hit nohwæðer ne selfe ne lufodon ne eac oðrum monnum ne lefdon” (“remember that punishment then befell us in this world, when we neither loved it [learning] ourselves nor passed it down to other men”). The “punishment” to which Alfred refers is undoubtedly the Viking attacks in which “hit eall forhergod wære ond forbærned” (“it all was ravaged and burned”) and before which “ða ciricean giond eall Angelcynn stodon maðma ond boca gefylda” (“the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books”). Alfred points out that people had received “lytle fiorme (“little benefit”) from those books, though, because the books “næron on hiora agen geðiode awritene” (“were not written in their own language”). The suggestion is, of course, that the inability to read and the ignorance it fostered were responsible for decades of suffering at the Vikings’ hands.

Although today most would not blame the Viking invasions on God’s anger at the state of education in Anglo-Saxon England, we can still admire Alfred’s prescience and intellect. His life and career reveal that learning was no less important than–and inexorably connected to–other aspects of kingship and citizenship, including military savvy and prowess. This lesson, certainly, is as valuable today as it was in the ninth century.


* The Latin is from The Latin Library’s “Asserius: Life of Alfred.” The translations are mine. My Latin was never good, and now it’s beyond rusty. If you see any errors, please point them out gently.

** These are not the liberal arts as we know them today. An explanation will be the subject of a future post.

***The Old English is from the University of Calgary’s King Alfred’s Preface to His Translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.” The translations are mine. My Old English is better than my Latin, but if you do see any errors, please (again) point them out gently.

Obligatory Post on The Walking Dead Season 6 Finale

SPOILER ALERT (obviously)


As you surely know by now if you’re reading this post, this past Sunday’s The Walking Dead season 6 finale, “Last Day on Earth,” left many, if not most, fans disappointed, frustrated, or blinded by rage. Some bemoaned the amount of disbelief one would need to suspend to accept the fact that all the major characters, including Alexandria’s best fighters, found themselves outside the city walls at the same time and that Michonne and Daryl were captured so easily. Others had grown impatient with how drawn out the Saviors’ capture of the RV was or questioned the necessity of including Carol and Morgan’s story line (although some were intrigued by the horsemen they encountered). The plethora of commercials did not help. The most infuriating element, of course, was the fact that Jeffrey Dean Morgan‘s much-anticipated arrival as Negan culminated in . . . a cliffhanger. We will need to wait six months to learn whose unfortunate head was on the receiving end of Lucille.

I found myself far less upset than (it seems) everyone else on the planet. In addition, I haven’t been interested in trying to figure out who Negan’s victim is. Have I set my bar for television shows that much lower than my bar for books? Perhaps. I wonder, though, whether I’ve been watching the show differently from others.

Consider, if you will, the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. This topic comes up in my AP Literature classes when we discuss Free Response Question 3, which reminds students that they may respond to the prompt using a novel or play from a list of suggested works or “one of equal literary merit.” We discuss why Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are not “of equal literary merit” to Invisible Man and King Lear. The former two are driven by plot and can be read relatively quickly; the latter two take a more complex approach to language and must be read more slowly. The former two would not provide students with much to work with when composing the type of essay required by the College Board; the latter would. That’s not to say there are’t any gray areas, but that’s another discussion for another time.

Why this tangent on literature? Even when I am not preparing lessons–even when I am on the beach–I enjoy reading literary fiction, as well as literary non-fiction. Some people enjoy mysteries; others enjoy romances; still others, like me, happen to enjoy literary fiction. I wonder if my focus on language, as opposed to plot, influences the way I watch television or movies. While others wanted to know who Negan’s victim was, I was looking for “cool, English major things,” like in a previous episode in which a character nicknamed “Jesus” was sitting to Rick’s right. (“Jesus sitting at Rick’s right hand? What does that suggest about Rick?” I asked my ever-patient husband.) If I had a problem with the latest episode, it was that it didn’t provide me with as much to work with as others have.

What do you think? Have your reading habits shaped your viewing style? What about the reverse?





Published in: on April 9, 2016 at 1:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Writing and Dolphins

Just a brief posting to check in; I know it’s been a while.

I was recently getting some well-earned rest on Tybee Island, GA, where my husband and I were fortunate enough to have an ocean-view room. Our first morning there, I viewed the ocean from our room’s balcony, wondering if I’d see any dolphins. I had been to Tybee many times, and I’d often seen dolphins. This particular morning, however, I saw none.

That was okay, though. The waves still hit the shore, and the sun still shone. My morning was every bit as relaxing and rejuvenating as it would have been had I seen a dolphin, or even a pod of dolphins.

I realized that the dolphinless shore was an apt metaphor for my recent writing. Although the piece that I’m currently writing (working title: The Saddest but Best Thing I’ve Ever Written) is not going as well as I had hoped by this point, that too is okay. I may not end up with the outcome I desire (see working title), but maybe the endeavor isn’t about said outcome. The fact is, I love to write, and every time I write, my writing improves. I feel better when I write than when I don’t. Just as the shore’s value remains regardless of whatever is swimming in it, so does writing’s value remain regardless of what, if anything, ends up breaking through the surface.


Published in: on April 8, 2016 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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What’s the Relevance . . . or Relevancy?

In a professional development workshop today, someone used the word “relevancy.” I don’t remember who said it or what the context was (thanks to last night’s insomnia), but I do remember the word. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that “relevancy” is not a word, or that it is an unfortunate or undesirable choice for whatever reason, but I do know that I don’t like it. I much prefer “relevance.” Some sources, such as Grammarist and the folks at the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange, state that the forms are interchangeable although the former claims that “relevance” is preferred. For what it’s worth, the OED notes the first use of “relevancy” in 1678 and that of “relevance” in 1787. Looking at “-ancy” and “-ance” in isolation, however, reveals more information. According to the OED, “-ancy” comes from the Latin “-ntia” and relates to a “quality or state.” On the other hand, “-ance”–which comes from Latin but via Old French–relates to action. It would seem, then, that if once were to take a prescriptive perspective, “relevancy” would be the preferable word. I guess the only thing left for me to do is to deal with it.

Are there words or forms of words that drive you crazy, even if they shouldn’t?

Published in: on January 6, 2016 at 3:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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All Hail!

SPOILER ALERT (even if you’ve read and / or seen the play)

I had been anticipating the US wide(r) release of Justin Kurzel‘s Macbeth from the minute I saw the first trailer, and my excitement only increased once I saw the second trailer. Having just finished reading the play with four classes, and having taught it for twelve of the fourteen years I’ve taught high school, I spent much of my viewing time noticing what was kept, changed, and cut in the translation from page to screen. (Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, of course, were wonderful.) I intend, therefore, to see it again, this time with (presumably) a different set of eyes.


Rather than risk turning this entry into some sort of source study, I shall focus on the movie’s end. In this version, rather than decapitating Macbeth offstage and returning with the dead king’s head, Macduff stabs him onscreen and abandons the corpse on the battlefield. In a departure from the play, Fleance–Banquo’s son, who escaped the men Macbeth hired to murder him and his father–returns, takes Macbeth’s sword, and runs off with it.

Kurzel’s version is not the first to have added a scene to the end of the play. Roman Polanski, for one, did so to great effect. Polanski’s film ends with  Donalbain–the younger son of the murdered King Duncan–visiting the witches who arguably had set in motion the series of events leading Macbeth to regicide, the Scottish throne, and so on. Thus, the cycle of violence continues, presumably ad infinitum . Such a dark interpretation is not surprising, of course, given the fact that Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, had been murdered by members of the Manson family only a year before Polanski directed Macbeth.

This latest Macbeth, then, seems to impart a different, and much more hopeful, message. Upon Fleance’s return, at least few of us expected (hoped?) the young man would use Macbeth’s sword to perform the decapitation we had been expecting. The subversion of this (as I maintain) reasonable expectation points to an alternative to Macbeth’s violence, another option for Scotland and thus for all humanity.

Whose perspective–Polanski’s or Kurzel’s–is more accurate remains to be seen. What do you think?

To Cleave together . . . or to Cleave Apart

In my last post, I mentioned contranyms, words that have two opposite meanings. One word that’s often mentioned in lists and discussions of these words is “cleave.” “Cleave,” however–as some have pointed out–is not technically a contranym because “cleave” meaning “to split” and “cleave” meaning “to adhere” are actually two different words, having derived from two separate words: the former from the Old English clíofan or cléofan via the Middle English cleoven and the latter from the Old English clífan or clifian or cleofian via the Middle English clive or clēve or cleeve. 

A word with similar meanings is “clip.” “Clip” can mean, of course, “cut” or “attach,” particularly with . . . clips. The former seems to have come from the Old Norse klippa via the Middle English clippen; interestingly, the earliest example cited it the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Ormulum, written about 1200: to clippenn swa þe cnapess shapp (to snip like a boy’s foreskin). The latter, on the other hand, seems to derive from the Old English clyppan, “embrace.” Genesis A (c. 1000) uses it to mean “clutch” in the story of Noah when dizziness þæs halgan . . .  heortan clypte (clutches the holy man’s heart). The earliest use of “clip” in its more modern sense didn’t appear until Elizabeth Banks’ 1902 Autobiography of a Newspaper Girl: “Page after page passed from under her pen. Then, clipping a dozen sheets together, she read them over.”

A true contranym appears in the form of “trim.” In the sense of both “cut” and “decorate,” the word derives from the Old English trymman or  trymian, which meant, according to the OED, “To make firm or strong; to strengthen, confirm to give as security; to arm or array (a force); to settle, arrange; to encourage, comfort, exhort.” Our modern definitions hark back to only to 1530 (for “cut”) and 1547 (for “decorate”).

There you have it: three words, six meanings, but only one true contranym.

(Thank you to the Oxford English Dictionary, without which this post would have been impossible.)

Published in: on December 25, 2015 at 4:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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All Downhill the Rest of the Way

Over breakfast this morning, I was telling my daughter about an essay I’m writing. “I’ve written the sad part,” I said, “so it’s all downhill the rest of the way.” She was curious about my use of “downhill.”

“Isn’t that negative?” she asked.

“I suppose it can be.” After all, I explained, going downhill is easier than going uphill, but for many people, “down” has negative connotations. (Think: Hell.) The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word can be used figuratively as well as literally, but I wasn’t able to find a definition with positive connotations.  The word does, however, appear on some lists of contranyms (or auto-antonyms or Janus words), words that possess two opposite meanings. Recently, in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Lingua Franca blog, Anne Curzan speculates on whether there’s a difference between “going downhill” and “all downhill from here/there” and reminds us of the importance of context.

Despite some people’s  inclination to label “downhill” a contranym (or an auto-antonym or a Janus word), Curzan points out that this label is not quite accurate; after all, “easy” and “bad” are not quite opposites. For now, if I need a label, I’ll refer to “downhill” as “one of those interesting linguistic things.”

Published in: on December 23, 2015 at 3:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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Me First!

This evening, I read an PhotoAbility Article profiling Deborah Davis, whose business, PhotoAbility, provides stock images of people who happen to have disabilities. The people in the photos are doing the same sorts of things that people without disabilities do, and the photos can illustrate articles on just about anything. Ideally, the use of these images in mainstream media will “normalize” people with disabilities. (Full disclosure: I’ve been living with multiple sclerosis for twenty years, so I have a vested interest in this topic.)

The article was fine, but I wish the reporter had followed Ms. Davis’ example and used people-first language. People-first language is what it sounds like. Instead of writing “disabled people,” for example, one would write “people with disabilities.” The difference may seem negligible, but think about it: Which should we prioritize–one’s humanity or one’s diagnosis, which is but one facet of that humanity? In the article, where Davis mentions “someone with a disability,” the reporter refers to “images of disabled people.” In the next paragraph, Davis brings up “a person with a disability,” shortly after which the reporter mentions “photos of disabled people.”

Not every individual or organization agrees with using person-first language. For example, many in the Blind, Deaf, and Autistic communities equate it with feelings of shame and/or attempts to distance the person from the disability. I respect these views and realize that it is up to people to define themselves. Because Davis used people-first language, though, the reporter should have followed suit.

Published in: on July 3, 2015 at 2:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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