Drunk as a sturdy thrush

Grandchildren just left after their annual stay with me and Mrs TD, so there’s been little time to read or post. As I get my breath back, I thought I’d add just this little Aside note.

Song_Thrush_(Turdus_philomelos)_singing_in_tree

Song Thrush (Turdus Philomelos). By Taco Meeuwsen from Hellevoetsluis, The Netherlands – THRUSH TUNE, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I read somewhere that the ancient Romans used to employ the expression ‘drunk as a thrush’ [‘turdus’ in Latin], perhaps because they had seen these birds staggering around in vineyards after gorging on rotting, fermenting grapes. (Wasps, I believe, behave similarly with apples).

In Old French this morphed into estourdi, ‘stunned, dazed, reckless, violent’ (modern French étourdi feather-brained, thoughtless). OED online (thank you, Cornwall Library Service for this free resource) adds:

Some scholars think that it is <  ex- (see ex- prefix) + turdus thrush (for the sense compare the French proverbial phrase soûl comme une grive , ‘drunk as a thrush’); some regard it as a contraction of *extorpidīre (Latin torpidus torpid adj. and n.) or of *exturbidīre (Latin turbidus turbid adj.). All these conjectures are open to grave objection.

It’s thought in some quarters that when the Normans invaded England in 1066 they were referred to with this expression, which gave rise to the current sense, as defined in OED below. I could find no textual evidence to support this link, apart from a much later translation from the Latin verses, supposedly of Archbishop Thomas of York (d. 1100), in praise of William I, the Conqueror, which contains the line ‘he who the sturdy Normans ruled…’. It would seem by Tudor times to have become a collocation when referring to the Normans.

As you’ll see, the first citation in OED is from late 13C, and makes no reference to the Norman Conquest:

II. 2.

  1. Impetuously brave, fierce in combat.

1297    R. Gloucester’s Chron. (Rolls) 7936   Þe heyemen of engelond..mid gret ost wende uorþ & mid stourdi [v.r. stourde] mode.

3.

  1. Recklessly violent, furious, ruthless, cruel.

 

It also has this meaning:

A brain-disease in sheep and cattle, which makes them run round and round; the turnsick.

The Latin name of the Song Thrush, as in the picture above, derives from the Greek legend of Philomela, in which, according to Ovid’s version in Metamorphosis, she’s raped by Tereus, and escaped by turning into a nightingale. This was much translated and adapted by later English poets, alluded to by Eliot (‘so rudely forced’, she ‘filled all the desert with inviolable voice/And still she cried, and still the world pursued’), her plaintive song ‘”jug jug” to dirty ears’). As always his allusion indirectly echoes lines from previous works, from the Tudor poet Gascoigne through Coleridge, Keats and others.

 

Mayhem, maiming, ravens and rapine: some etymology

When I began this blog nearly two years ago it was with a notion of writing about the world of words and literature in general. Subsequently my early posts were on a range of topics, from reviews of Javier Marías’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy to unusual vocabulary in Eliot and Byron (orioles, becaficas) to strange engravings in obscure nineteenth-century Portuguese travel books about west Africa. In the last year, though, most of my posts have been book reviews.

I never intended this blog to become just another book-review site – though such matter will always dominate what I write, in keeping with what I’m reading at the time – but I’d like to maintain an element of novelty and surprise.

Today then I came across an entry in an old notebook – which is where several of my early posts originated – about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I felt inspired, and looked out a couple of reviews I’d saved. From there I returned to Burton’s book-length Preface, and an hour later had still not written a word. A little ironic, really: it’s a book that arises from what its author ruefully describes as ‘an unconstant unsettled mind’, liable to ‘rove abroad’, ‘taste of every dish and sip of every cup’ —  it’s a ramble, in other words, through everything to be found in an early seventeenth-century library – and I find myself no nearer to a line of critical approach than I was when I set out.

So I’m going to plunder another entry in the same notebook. I hope to return to Burton some time soon. This enables me to do something I’ve not done on this blog for a long time: look at some words and anatomise them.

Before I start, a word about other forthcoming projects. I’m reading Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, and making pretty slow progress in an intriguing novel that’s clearly influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, and therefore can’t be read quickly. I also received in the post the other day my copy of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Laughing Monsters. So those two should keep me occupied here for a while.

The first word that I want to examine is MAYHEM. The OED’s first entry for it as a noun is:

  1. ‘Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence; an instance of this. Also fig. Now hist.‘ Its first citation is from the Rolls of Parliament in 1447. I was surprised to see that its more familiar use

‘Orig. U.S. Violent behaviour, esp. physical assault’, is first cited here:

  1. ‘1870   ‘M. Twain’ in Territorial Enterprise 20 Jan. 1/1   This same man..pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.’ Its next citation is from a report in the Times from 1930 of ‘brigandage…mayhem and murder’ in New York ‘and its vicinity’. Plus ça change…Next is
  2. ‘Rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder. Freq. in to cause (also make) mayhem . Also fig.’ First cited:

1976   Daily Mirror 15 Mar. 24/4 (caption)    Without wishin’ to cast nasturtiums on your worm—I feel he’s not goin’ to make much mayhem today.

 

It derives from Middle English maheym ‘maim’, from French legal usage maihem, itself derived from Anglo-French mahain or mahaim, originally signifying a ‘lasting wound or bodily injury’; and ‘Subsequently: an injury to the body which causes the loss of a limb, or of the use of it; a… mutilating wound’. Its ultimate etymology is ‘uncertain’:  ‘Compare post-classical Latin mahemium, maamium… mayhem, maiming (from late 12th cent. in British sources), Italian magagna defect, infirmity (late 13th cent.).’ Other sources claim it’s akin to Germanic meidem, gelding, ON meitha, to injure.

 

Corvus corax: the raven (Wikimedia Commons)

Next is RAVENOUS. This apparently derives from OF ravineus, equivalent to ‘raviner’ – to RAVEN, ie take by force; this derives from vulgar Latin rapinare, from earlier Latin rapina, plunder. OED has this: ‘Compare Old French ravineux, ravinos, rabinos rapid, impetuous (late 12th cent.)….’ This produced English ravin, an act of rapine or robbery, plunder, pillaging (first cited c. 1325).

 

How did it come to mean what it does now? Here’s the OED again:

 

  1. ‘a) Originally: (of an animal) given to seizing other animals as prey; predatory; ferocious. Later: (of an animal or person; also of the appetite, hunger, etc.) voracious, gluttonous.’ (First cited ?1387). Here are the first two citations of its now customary primary meaning:
  2. ‘Exceedingly hungry; famished.’ Citations:

‘1648   T. Stephens tr. Statius  Thebais v. 131   Hircanian tygers so the herds inclose, In Scythian plaines, whom morning hunger does Rouse up, and th’ ravenous whelps roare for their paps.

1719   D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 201,   I got up ravenous.’

 

The name of the large corvine bird ‘raven’ appears to come via a different, Scandinavian-Germanic route; in its various forms it was spelt hrafn (OI), hraben (OHG), etc., maybe reflecting an imitation of its guttural call.

And that’s it for today. Probably more than enough etymology for one post.

 Picture credit: “Corvus corax ad berlin 090516” by Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg