Sunday, November 18, 2012

`Let Us Be Ocular Athletes'

"Senescence never curbed his griggish gratitude for existence itself; history for him occurs in the now, and the joy undimmed in his lifetime reads brightly still, in ours. `He is something far more convincing, far more comforting, far more religiously significant than an optimist: he is a happy man.’” 

These are the concluding sentences of G.K. Chesterton (Northcote House Publishers, 2012) by Michael D. Hurley. The quote within the quote is from Robert Browning, the monograph Chesterton published in 1903, his first proper book. I share Hurley’s taste for alliterative phrasing and “griggish gratitude” is awfully good even though I didn’t know the meaning of “griggish.” The Oxford English Dictionary is ungriggishly laconic with its definition -- “merry” – and gives two citations, both from letters written by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The more griggish the piece [of music] the more we clapped it” and “I seem to be in a griggish mood; it must be because holidays have begun.” The noun “grig” is a rather griggish word, meaning a dwarf, a young eel, a farthing, common heather, a short-legged hen, a cricket or grasshopper, and “an extravagantly lively person, one who is full of frolic and jest.” As a verb it means to irritate or annoy. Clearly, a word Chesterton would have loved. 

Before consulting the OED, I looked into Webster’s Third and found a griggish grande fĂȘte. On page 999 of my thirty-nine-year-old dictionary I stumbled on griffonage (“a crude or illegible scrawl”), griggles (“small or inferior apples left on a tree after picking”), grike (“an opening in rock widened by natural forces”) and grimalkin (“an old and usu. cantankerous or otherwise unpleasant woman”). Pretty soon my two younger sons joined me, and we had a good time on the same page with grilse (“a young mature [?] Atlantic salmon returning from the sea to spawn”), griege (“a variable color averaging a grayish yellow green that is yellower and paler than average sage green, mermaid, or palmetto and yellower and less strong than celadon”) and griffone (“a woman of three-quarter Negro and one-quarter white blood”). Hurley quotes a passage from Chesterton’s essay collection Tremendous Trifles (1909): 

“Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud. I have attempted some such thing in what follows; but anyone else may do it better, if anyone else will only try.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Patrick, your blog often hits the exact right note with me. Today was one of those days.