Friday, August 17, 2012

`A Piece, a Fragment; a Part'

I handed my nine-year-old the warm bottles of water that had been sitting on the back seat of the car all day and he asked, “Why do they call it lukewarm? What does that mean, anyway?”  For once, I didn’t have an answer, not even a moderately intelligent guess. He added, “And what about nooks and crannies? What’s a cranny, anyway?” 

The “luke” part is from the Middle English leuk, meaning tepid, warm but not hot, making lukewarm a one-word redundancy – “warmwarm.”  The word showed up in the fourteenth century, and Spenser uses it rather sensationally in The Faerie Queene: “All wallowd in his own yet luke-warme blood.” Dickens was fond of it, as in The Old Curiosity Shop: “Sickening smells from many dinners came in a heavy lukewarm breath upon the sense.” In Pickwick Papers he resorts to the older, rarer form: “Let me have nine penn’orth o’ brandy and water luke.” Shakespeare uses lukewarm in the bloody-minded Spenserian sense. Richard III says in Henry VI, Part 3:  

“I cannot rest
Until the white rose that I wear be dyed
Even in the lukewarm blood of Henry's heart.” 

Today, the word is most often used metaphorically, as in “lukewarm reception,” but Anthony Hecht memorably revives the literal version in “The Ghost in the Martini” (from the Shakespearian-titled Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977): 

“I have sat alone in the dark, accomplishing little,
And worth no more to myself, in pride and fee,
              Than a cup of luke-warm spittle.”

David stumped me again with nooks and crannies. The OED gives fourteen finely nuanced definitions for nook, most deriving from the first: “a corner of a thing regarded as a separate portion; a piece, a fragment; a part.” The full phrase is given as “nooks and crannies (also corners),” meaning “the furthest, smallest, or most obscure parts or aspects.” The substitution of “corners” was unfamiliar, though the OED cites Charles Lamb’s “Blakesmoor in H---shire” (Last Essays of Elia): “I was a lonely child, and had the range at will of every apartment, knew every nook and corner, wondered and worshipped everywhere.” The Dictionary’s first citation is from Marlowe’s Edward II (1594). 

“What’s a cranny?”  Well, the OED is tersely precise: “A small narrow opening or hole; a chink, crevice, crack, fissure.” The earliest citation dates from the mid-fifteenth century, but it also shows up in Gulliver’s Travels: “I saw the Water ooze in at several Crannies.” David was unimpressed with my homework. He was just thirsty. When the great tenor player Don Byas, who lived in Europe for much of his later career, died in 1972, Whitney Balliett wrote in The New Yorker (Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2001): 

“Byas came back to this country just once—in 1970, when he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival. He played well, but the response was lukewarm. His beautiful, unabashed romanticism had gone out of fashion.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

George Carlin, in his act, posed the question of what did "turvy" mean, in the phrase "topsy-turvy".