Wednesday, December 19, 2012

`Ever Three Parts Coward'

The first citation, from 1814, is so obscure and awkwardly written as to be almost unreadable: “There lay the steed; here lay the man;/Gude friends that day did twin [part]:/They leuch [laughed] na a' to the feast that cam/Whan the het bluid-bath was done.” The source is Robert Jamieson (c. 1780-1844), a Scottish antiquary, friend of Walter Scott and co-editor of Illustrations of Northern Antiquities. The first use of bloodbath (“bluid-bath”) in English, as identified by the Oxford English Dictionary, is a translation from the Danish. Why did the word appear so late in our bloody history? Why don’t we find it two centuries earlier in those blood-drenched plays Titus Andronicus and Macbeth? Shakespeare uses “blood” thirteen times in the former and twenty in the latter, as when Macbeth says: 

“I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er:
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand;
Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d.”
History is nothing if not bloody. Ours is a bloody-minded species. The OED’s second citation, by another Scot, Thomas Carlyle, appeared in 1832: “England has escaped the blood-bath of a French Revolution.” The dictionary gives four subsequent citations dated between 1919 and 2005. All are drawn from the popular press. It’s a tabloid word, vulgarly sensational, likelier to be used by a journalist than a legitimate historian. In a Simpson’s episode, Homer buys a revolver from the Bloodbath & Beyond Gun Shop. But the word’s referent is a daily occurrence somewhere, hardly a moral anomaly. Consider the OED’s first definition: “A battle or fight at which much blood is spilt; a wholesale slaughter, a massacre.” In brief, the twentieth century. 

Each morning the OED emails its “Word of the Day” feature to subscribers. On Tuesday, the choice was “bloodbath,” and some readers objected. They found the choice “insensitive,” “in poor taste” and “tasteless and gross,” among other expressions of ersatz sensitivity. The dictionary issued an apology and removed “bloodbath” as a “Word of the Day.” The editors explained that their daily words are chosen by committee months in advance and posted automatically. Nonetheless, they added: 

“The timing of today's word is a coincidence of the worst kind, and we apologize for any distress or upset caused by what might appear to be a highly insensitive choice.” 

For the next “Word of the Day” I nominate “craven,” defined by the OED as “That owns himself beaten or afraid of his opponent; cowardly, weak-hearted, abjectly pusillanimous.” Hamlet uses it: 

“Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th' event,--
A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward.”


The Sanity Inspector said...

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world`s more full of weeping
Than you can understand.
-- William Butler Yeats, The Stolen Child, 1889

Will Knowland said...

'Blood' occurs 19 times in Titus Andronicus and 23 times in Macbeth.

Accuracy matters.

The Sanity Inspector said...

ROSS: Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes
Savagely slaughter'd: to relate the manner,
Were, on the quarry of these murder'd deer,
To add the death of you.