Thursday, 27 June 2013

'By oak and ash and bitter thorn'

Jack Orion swore a bloody oath -
By oak and ash and bitter thorn
Saying 'Lady, I never was in your house
Since the day that I was born.'

I was reminded of this song (itself brought to my attention by Bert Jansch's rendition many years ago, but I won't  put a link here because it seems to be impossible to visit a lyrics/music site without attracting a never-ending stream of ringtone-related spam) by a Richard Maybey programme I caught at the end of yesterday morning (which I haven't caught up with yet – but will do when The Schedule (for #WVGTbook) allows. At one stage, as I remember, Maybey said something like 'Ash comes from an old word meaning "spear"'; he may have said ' Old English word....' – which would make sense as the letter 'æ' (incidentally, and I'm sure not coincidentally, called ash) is an Old English character.

My ears pricked up at that stage, as I caught a whiff of Proto-Indo-European. It seemed likely (and I'll write this before checking Etymonline) that the Old English word was related (by shared PIE ancestry) to the Latin word hasta. OK, here goes:
ash (2)
type of tree, Old English æsc "ash tree," also "spear made of ash wood," from Proto-Germanic *askaz, *askiz (cf. Old Norse askr, Old Saxon ask, Middle Dutch esce, German Esche), from PIE root *os- "ash tree"
Phew  – so far so good. But hereafter the definition sticks to the tree, mentioning the Latin ornus. I'm pretty sure hasta is lurking there somewhere though.

But what about that song? What had made Jack so angry? Well someone had been there before him, and he had guessed at the goings-on (prompted by her question):
'Whether have you left with me
Your hosen or your glove
Or are you returned back again
To know more of my love?'
No wonder he was miffed; presumably she had no sense of smell, or perhaps Tom had borrowed Jack's deod... whoops, anachronism alert. After his 'bloody oath', she confirms his worst fears:
'Oh then it was your servant, Tom,
That hath so cruelly beguiled me
And woe that the blood of the ruffian lad
Should spring in my body.'
Long story short, they all die, or as Stoppard's Player King puts it 'The good die unhappily, the bad die unluckily. That is tragedy.'‡

<autobiographical _note>
In my hitch-hiking days  I used to wile (sic†) away the time by singing. I had to watch my repertoire though. It took me a while to realize that songs like So Early in the Spring weren't conducive to drivers doing anything but put their foot down and leave the madman in the rear-view mirror, singing
'Oh curse your gold and your silver too 
And curse the girl that won't prove true...' 

†That's 'wile', as in 'beguile', cp other pairs like ward/guard, warranty/guarantee and so on. There's a strong move towards 'while away', and most people prefer the h spelling (which has the mnemonic advantage of referring to time). Far be it from me to say it's wrong; it's not. I'm just saying that when I omit 'the' h I mean to.
There's more to be said about trees and oaths/magic/significance, but it'll have to wait for an update (after I've listened to that programme).

Update 2013.06.27.16:20 Small addition (Esprit d'escalier)

Update 2013.06..28 Added this footnote:
‡Misremembered from a school visit ...
I say  more about this visit here,
in  a later post: Beware worm-holes? The Harmless Drudgery blog welcomes careful time-travellers.
</inline_PPPS> a press preview of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead that I went to in the late '60s. What the Player King actually said was
The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.
Update 2013.07.12 Added this PS:
Further to my wile/beguile footnote, I was rehearsing for this tour ...
There used to be a link to the tour poster here, but I can't find it in the choir's archives. I reported on the tour here.
...(which is only a week away at the time of this update) when I noted a phrase that I hadn't thought about before, in the madrigal All Creatures Now, written during the reign of Good Queen Bess ('See where she comes, see where she comes with flow'ry garlands crownéd...'). I have sung this madrigal before, and as I say I haven't given this phrase a second thought: 'Music the time beguileth'.  It doesn't seem to belong semantically (or musically) with either what comes before or after it. So previously I have dismissed this line as just an Elizabethan filler that doesn't mean very much.

But having so recently written That's 'wile', as in 'beguile'... (in this post, a few lines back) I realized that Bennet (the composer) was referring to the way music has a beguiling effect on the listener's awareness of the passage of time; it wiles time away.

Update: 2018. – Added inline PPS and various format tweaks.

Update: 2019. – Added inline PPPS.

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