Saturday, 7 April 2012

Let Us Go Then, You and I

               When T S Eliot opens his poem The Waste Land with the words :

April is the cruellest month

he is referencing the first lines of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

(When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March has pierced to the root)

We are getting well into April now, and, judging by the weather, it's proving to be cruel enough. I love The Waste Land, it's one of those works you can return to again and again, and find something new every time, which, by my standards at least, is one mark of the great work of art. However, if I had to choose, I think I prefer Eliot's earlier poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock as my favourite work of his: -

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I picked up these coffee spoons somewhere along the way, no doubt with Prufrock in the back of my mind. I like the carved coffee bean knops on the handles. They are a set of six, stamped on the back with

(EPNS means Electro Plated Nickel Silver.)

Stories about the origins of coffee drinking are probably just that - stories - for it is said a 9th Century Ethiopian goatherd called Kaldi saw his goats eating the bright red berries from a bush and tried them himself. Delighted with the taste and the burst of energy he experienced, Kaldi rushed to the local monastery, where he told the Head Monk of his discovery, but the Head Monk declared the beans to be 'the work of the devil' and threw them on the fire. Soon, the monastery was filled with the delicious smell of roasting coffee. The charred beans were saved from the fire, put in hot water, and sampled by the other monks, who declared the drink delicious. They vowed to drink the brew to keep them awake during their long nightly devotions. 
The Sufis of Southern Arabia spread the use of coffee through the Arab world. Sufis follow a mystical form of Islam; the name, it is thought, may come from the Greek sophia - 'wisdom', (the same root as our suffix -sophy, seen in words like 'philosophy' - 'the love of wisdom'). Sufis are also known as Dervishes, famous for their whirling dances during prayer. The drink became known as qahwa, a word previously used to refer to wine, and coffee is sometimes called 'The Wine of Islam'. As I mentioned yesterday, the Koran forbids the use of intoxicants, and some hard-liners attempted to include coffee in the ban, but its popularity overcame the prohibitions, (one legend had it that the Angel Gabriel brought a cup of coffee to sustain the Prophet Mohammed). Coffee began to be exported from the port of Mocha, in Yemen, and soon reached Europe, the first mention being in 1573. Following the Islamic example, Europeans enjoyed their coffee in the new coffee-houses, where there was the necessary equipment and expertise to prepare the drink properly. The first coffee-house in London opened in 1652. Coffee-houses became places to meet one's friends and to talk, read, write, do business, or simply pass the time of day. They were seen as a more 'Gentlemanly' alternative to the tavern, and became the fashionable place to frequent, ultimately some developing into Gentlemen's Clubs.
But some people saw coffee-houses as bad things. Charles II tried to suppress them as places where the disaffected met and treasonous rumours were spread. Women were banned from them, and in 1674 an anonymous pamphlet called The Women's Petition Against Coffee was published.

This railed against the coffee-houses as places where the once vigorous gallants of England were becoming 'Frenchified', "... meer Cock-sparrows, fluttering things that come on Sa sa, with a world of Fury, but are not able to stand to it, and in the very first Charge fall down flat before us". This bawdy tirade continues to blame the men that  "...trifle away their time, scald their Chops, and spend their Money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water", and so fail to perform their marital duties. It ends by recommending that men should drink instead, " ... Lusty nappy Beer, Cock-Ale, Cordial Canaries, Restoring Malago's, and Back-recruiting Chochole". 

This even bawdier reply answers each of the women's objections in turn, and, in turn, there were even more pamphlets and broadsheets, both pro- and anti- the coffee-house. These are, of course, satires and written very much with the tongue firmly in cheek, but have sometimes been taken to be actual descriptions of the times. Once again, we return to interpretation and appearance.

As the price of both coffee and tea fell, and as fashions changed, the appeal of the coffee-house declined. We still have the coffee shop - and the tea room - but they are no longer the centres that they were.

Look at the picture above. What the heck is an Anfwer?  Look at the picture above that. What the heck is a Coffee-houfe? That, my dears, is called the long-s. For some reason, in the past, people thought they needed two esses, the long ess and the short ess. To our eyes, the long ess looks like the letter f, it even, in some cases, has a nub or cross-bar. But it is an s. 

One reason may be that during the Enlightenment it became fashionable to favour Latin and Greek words over the more 'common' Anglo-Saxon and Germanic words. After the Roman legions left Britain in the 5th Century, Latin began to drop from common usage - there are only about four hundred or so words with Latin roots from the time left in English, and many of these are uncommon. Latin may have been used in the Church and by the Law, but most people could neither read nor write it. During the 17th and 18th Centuries, following the re-discovery of Rome, which had been left in ruins after the fall of the Western Empire, it became the 'done thing' for the well-to-do gentleman to round off his education by taking the Grand Tour of the continent. The use of words derived from Greek and Latin roots was seen as a mark of refinement. 

(This, by the way, is where that pedantic nonsense about split infinitives was born. In Latin, the infinitive form of a verb is a single word - you simply cannot split a Latin infinitive. In English, the infinitive form requires two words - 'to read', 'to write', and so on. And you can put an adjective or adverb in the middle of these two words - the most famous example is probably the '.. to boldly go', from Star Trek. However, because you don't do it in Latin, only the uneducated would do it in English). 

Now, in Greek the ess - the lower-case letter sigma- has two forms;  a final form, used at the end of words, and a non-final form, used at the start or in the middle of words. So, obviously, English simply had to do the same. A long ess (shaped like f) is used at the start of, or in the middle of, words: the short, or round, ess ( s ) is used at the end of words. There are other rules (short ess before an apostrophe, and so on), which I won't go into here. Believe me, I used to teach this stuff, and you really don't need to know. Leave it to the orthographers and paleographers.

Just a couple more interesting things, (well, I think they are interesting). Possibly the only time you will see the long ess used in modern English (and possibly not that much these days), is when it is used as the abbreviated mark for 'shilling' in pre-decimal currency. If you write 3/- to mean 'three shillings', that backslash, or solidus, character is short for 'fhilling', that is 'shilling' spelled with a long ess.

I wrote earlier about the lower-case letter sigma. Lower-case is a term from old-fashioned type-setting. When printers used to set type by hand, the capital - or majuscule - letters were kept up above the smaller - or miniscule - letters, in separate shallow wooden drawers or cases, Hence upper- and lower-case letters.

I said that you cannot split the Latin infinitive. Of course, you can split anything. Even the atom. Atom means, in Greek ' not cut' - 'a' means 'not' - so an 'atheist' is not a 'theist'; 'tom' means 'to cut' - as in ''tonsillectomy'  means 'to cut out the tonsils'. And can you split a word? Abso-blooming-lutely, you can. This is called tmeisis - cutting a word into pieces with other words. Tmesis is the only word in English beginning with the letters 'tm'.

And T S Eliot is an anagram of 'toilets'.

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