Language is a writer’s basic toolkit. Writers — novelists, playwrights, poets, lyricists, and all the rest — use words to trigger emotional responses or to paint pictures in the minds of their readers and listeners.
How can we fail to see layers of meaning in creations like these?
- the wine-dark sea (Homer, Ancient Greece)
- sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care (Shakespeare: Macbeth, 1606)
- nursing her wrath to keep it warm (Robert Burns: Tam O’Shanter, 1790)
- moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black (Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood, 1954)
English, a pickpocket stealing words?
The Conjurer, by Hieronymus Bosch, showing the pickpocket accomplice, far left
Individual words can excite the reader’s imagination, even without any context. English is a rich language that picks the pockets of other cultures for colourful words when they seem useful — like bungalow and jodhpurs from the days of the British Empire in India.
A Marwari horse in Rajasthan. The rider is wearing trousers tight around the calf — jodhpurs?
English isn’t always thieving or borrowing, though. It happily coins new words, too.
Selfie? (This one was taken by a macaque that picked up a camera)
Compare the halves of an English-French dictionary like Harraps and you’ll be struck by the fact that the English-French part (1500+ pages) is half as long again as the French-English part (just under 1000 pages). There are simply lots more words and meanings in English.
If I may call on Shakespeare again (A Winter’s Tale this time), I’d say the English language uses the Autolycus principle: it snaps up unconsidered trifles wherever it goes. The result is a cornucopia of luscious delights for writers to savour. And to make use of.
Sometimes writers create striking metaphors, as Shakespeare did in that Macbeth quotation. But individual words can work like metaphors too, if readers understand shades of meaning in them without needing to have it spelled out. The animal kingdom provides rich pickings there.
For example, animals give us fabulous verbs.
Animals can be IN…
- Our villain may hound his enemies, wolf his food, and hare off into the distance.
- The investigator ferrets out the awful truth, but the culprit weasels his way into her affections and escapes justice.
- The slick-tongued charmer may fox me with his clever talk, or perhaps he rabbits on until I plead for mercy, or else he badgers me until I do exactly what he wants.
I’m not sure it would be easy to turn any of those three sentences into French without putting in lots of extra descriptive words. Fluent speakers of French might like to try?
…or animals can be OUT
English has some interesting omissions on the animal front.
Any of us may occasionally pig out, or hog the limelight, but we don’t boar.
I may chicken out, or be cowed, but I am never sheeped.
You may beaver away at your daily chores,
but you do not otter.
He may dog my footsteps, but I’m pretty sure he does not cat.
The Wind in the Willows dimension
Humans do not mouse — or, at least, we didn’t until the computer mouse came along — but we may rat, if we’re nasty enough.
(Apologies to Ratty for the slur on his integrity.)
Much as we love Wind in the Willows, we do not mole, though we do badger. Nor do we toad, but at a push we could always toady up to the richer members of society and even toad-eat them. 😉
Most of these verb creations are borrowings from mammals that have been part of our culture for centuries. They include some rather exotic ones — for example, we may ape our betters or monkey around when we should be doing more sensible things — but more latter-day mammal discoveries like the chimpanzee and the gorilla don’t get a look in.
Fish and birds (apart from parrot and lark?) don’t have quite the same resonance as mammals. We don’t make verbs out of owl, or robin, or pigeon. Nor do we have verbs to salmon, or to haddock, or to stickleback.
Maybe we should?
We English-speakers do, however, draw on many parts of the animal kingdom, including birds and fish, for our descriptive nouns.
I might see my character as a (loan-)shark or a (stool-)pigeon or a minnow or a gannet.
Or perhaps he’s a sloth?
In a spy story, my character might also be a mole.
(Hurrah! Mole wins out at last.)
She — but never he, sadly — could even be an old trout.
It’s very early on Sunday morning and I was up late watching the news last night, so I’m not functioning properly yet, but I’m desperately rummaging through my memory for “cat”. I’m sure it comes in somewhere – possibly public school? PG Wodehouse? I’m sure I’ve read “catted”. Interesting as always.
Fascinating, Lesley. Hadn’t thought of that one. Shall have to consult my OED but don’t have it on this Mac laptop. This blog is just a piece of silliness but I had great fun doing it.
Have checked OED, Lesley, and you are right. There IS a verb to cat, but it’s generally pretty obscure or specialised:
1 Naut To raise (the anchor) from the surface of the water to the cat-head
2 To flog with the cat-o’-nine tails
3 dial & colloq To vomit (“shoot the cat”)
4 To be deposited in the manner of salt round objects, in crevices, or the like [science & medical, apparently]
Thanks for sending me ahem haring after something that was not a red herring 😉
Whoop! I knew “shoot the cat” (Heyer), so very pleased to be confirmed in my toadying post. IThat was contrived, wasn’t it?)
Am impressed by your contrivance, Lesley. Almost on a par with Liz’s moling out the haddocking sticklebacks 😉
Never sheeped, but can be sheepish.
Absolutely right, Jenni. And isn’t it interesting that there’s no verb to sheep while we can be sheepish. OTOH, there’s a verb to cow, but we can’t be cowish or cowly, I don’t think. English language is endlessly fascinating
Agree. And as writers we get to play with it all. It’s like really cool Lego but with extra bits.
Yup. Really cool Lego is a great description.
Love this discussion. At my creative writing class last year one term’s theme was birds. Some verbs there – duck, parrot, snipe, swallow, swan, crow, peacock etc …
Welcome, Kate. Seems like I’ve done an injustice to birds in my blog. You’ve got some good ones there. I particularly love snipe.
I’m also interested in how some animal/fish/bird names are surnames and others aren’t. (My own (married) surname is a place name in the Scottish Borders but perhaps has older reptilian origins!)
The origins of surnames are really interesting. Enjoy the research.
There is catty, though. Love this blog. My fascination with words mirrors yours, Joanna. And let’s not forget Shakespeare added a huge number of words to the English vocabulary because he just made one up when there wasn’t one suitable. So I think we are entitled to mole out any haddocking sticklebacks we feel like.
Your last suggestion really made me laugh, Liz. Thank you!
I’m sure I’ve read somewhere about a character tom-catting around. Can’t remember who wrote it though.
Yes, it sounds plausible, doesn’t it? If I find the source — I’ll check the OED — I’ll add another comment about it.