Tuesday, October 28, 2014

`Words Kept Getting in the Way'

Sometimes words are stuffed to bursting, like fat sausages, with meanings. One pities (and envies – think of Shakespeare, Swift, et al.) those learning English as a second language. Take this passage from A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775): 

“In our return, we found a little boy upon the point of a rock, catching with his angle a supper for the family. We rode up to him, and borrowed his rod, with which Mr. Boswell caught a cuddy. The cuddy is a fish of which I know not the philosophical name. It is not much bigger than a gudgeon, but is of great use in these Islands, and affords the lower people both food and oil for their lamps.” 

First, contemplate the scene of Boswell and Johnson at Ullinish, a town on the southwest coast of Skye, stopping to talk with a little boy and borrow his fishing rod. How pleased was Boswell to show off his angling prowess? From the context I knew cuddy was a fish, though I’m not certain what Johnson means by “philosophical name.” Thirty-five years earlier, Linnaeus had published Systema Naturae, in which he sets out his system of binomial nomenclature. Was Johnson referring to the fish’s Linnaean name (perhaps Pollachius virens)? 

Why cuddy? It echoes with Cutty Sark, the clipper ship and whiskey.  The OED offers a wealth of meanings, some mutually exclusive. First, chiefly in Scotland, it’s a donkey (also, cuddy ass) and, figuratively, “a stupid fellow, an ‘ass’.” In Australia, it’s a small horse. Next comes Johnson’s usage: “a name for the young of the coal-fish or seath,” from the Gaelic cudaig. And then, “local name for the hedge-sparrow or ‘dunnock’, and for the moor-hen.” Finally, away from the zoological: “a lever mounted on a tripod for lifting stones, leveling up railroad-ties, etc.” And then a compound form, cuddy-legs, “a large herring.” Not to mention another, etymologically unrelated string of meanings, most nautical, but one meaning “a small room, closet, or cupboard” and related to cubby and cubby-hole. 

In 1978, Anthony Burgess reviewed The Linguistic Atlas of England for the Times Literary Supplement, and called it “one of this year’s really notable events.” His review is collected in the ridiculously titled But Do Blondes Prefer Gentleman? (1986). Burgess notes that cuddy, as in “donkey,” is one among many synonyms collected by the editors: “a dickey, a neddy, an ass, a fussock, a fussanock, a moke, a mokus [in the U.S., as a noun it means “loneliness, depression”; as an adjective, “drunk.” In Hungarian, mókus means “squirrel.”], a nirrup, a jack nirrup, a bronkus or a pronkus.” This reads like one of the more transparent passages in Finnegans Wake. Burgess goes on: 

Cuddy is not given as a form used in my own county of Lancashire, but most pubs named for a horse, black, white or grey, are popularly The Cuddy, even in sophisticated Liverpool.” 

One year earlier, Burgess had reviewed Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by the great lexicographer’s granddaughter, K.M. Elisabeth Murray. James Murray died in 1915 at age seventy-eight, lived only through the letter “T,” and Burgess writes of him: 

“It is true that Murray’s preoccupation with the OED begot a kind of monomania, but it must be regarded as a beneficent or at least an innocuous one. It became difficult for him to make aesthetic judgements on literature: words kept getting in the way.”

1 comment:

  1. "I’m not certain what Johnson means by “philosophical name.”

    In Johnson's day, science was known as "natural philosophy." Johnson is saying he does not know the cuddy's scientific name.