Thursday, April 12, 2018

`Cutting Out Delicate Green Crankles'

Crankle? Sounds like a minor character, a servant or coachman, in Dickens: Theophrastus Crankle. Spell-check suggests crinkle, crackle and rankle but the word, as spelled, turns up in Charles Lamb’s “On Some of the Old Actors” (1822). Lamb is recounting the roles on the London stage made famous by James Edward Dodd (c. 1740-1796): “What an Aguecheek the stage lost in him!” He launches a long, serpentine sentence, a chain of digressions that might have been borrowed from Tristram Shandy:

“I am ill at dates, but I think it is now better than five and twenty years ago that walking in the gardens of Gray’s Inn—they were then far finer than they are now—the accursed Verulam Buildings had not encroached upon all the east side of them, cutting out delicate green crankles, and shouldering away one of two of the stately alcoves of the terrace—the survivor stands gaping and relationless as if it remembered its brother—they are still the best gardens of any of the Inns of Court, my beloved Temple not forgotten have the gravest character, their aspect being altogether reverend and law-breathing—Bacon has left the impress of his foot upon their gravel walks—taking my afternoon solace on a summer day upon the aforesaid terrace, a comely sad personage came towards me, whom, from his grave air and deportment, I judged to be one of the old Benchers of the Inn.”

The OED defines crankle as “a bend, twist, winding; a curve or angular prominence,” a nice gloss on Lamb’s prose, with its unexpected detours and reversals. The dictionary’s first citation is from John Florio, Shakespeare’s contemporary and possibly his friend, and the first translator of Montaigne into English. In his A Worlde of Wordes, or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598), he gives us: “Tortuoso, crooked, winding, full of crinkles and crankles.” Then comes the definition in Johnson’s Dictionary: “inequalities; angular prominences.” Lamb and two other citations follow, the most recent dating from 1881. Already in Lamb’s day the word was musty and out-of-date, qualities the essayist savored. For Lamb, the past always usurps the present. His tone is dolorous nostalgia punctuated by silliness and wit. Those of us who grew up watching Hollywood movies can sympathize with Lamb’s description of aging actors:

“There is something strange as well as sad in seeing actors—your pleasant fellows particularly—subjected to and suffering the common lot—their fortunes, their casualties, their deaths, seem to belong to the scene, their actions to be amenable to poetic justice only. We can hardly connect them with more awful responsibilities.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

In England – especially in East Anglia – we have 'crinkle crankle' walls, walls that go in and out in a serpentine manner. This method of wall building actually economises on bricks as crinkle crankle walls can be built just one brick thick and will be firm and secure.