or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Reader Elspeth writes, regarding a long-ago bit I wrote about the sort-of-word "harbinge":

You don't quote the two examples of 'harbinge' that you mention. Many years ago as a child I heard a poem about the cuckoo on the radio that went '... Harbinger of Spring, they said/ .../ So up I got at half past five/ To hear the bird harbinge/...' and I've been trying to find the rest of it ever since. Is it by chance one of your two examples?

Alas, no, and I'm sorry about that. The OED's two examples are Walt Whitman ("The future of the States I harbinge", from "Starting from Paumanok") and, to quote the citation in full, Mem. O.F. Morris, "Harbinging the return", which I guess has "mem." meaning "memoir" and the quotation being the title of a chapter or something.

Your poem may be lost to the ages, and I know very well what it's like to be desperately searching for a literary source and running into a brick wall. English-lit types--at least the ones I knew--adore anecdotes, and I once read one which I'm going to try to reconstruct for you, as long as you understand that I'll likely get some of it wrong (and also that I'm not really making any serious attempt to write as if I were living in the eighteenth century).

A certain impoverished writer made entreaties to a well-known and high-priced courtesan, who decided, for her own amusement, to indulge him. After transacting their business, the poor man handed her twenty pounds, whereupon she said disdainfully, "Damn your twenty-pound note, what does that signify?", and so saying, she clapped it between two pieces of bread and et it.

That quotation at the end and the subsequent punch line, with its three snappy syllables, constitute one of the best jokes I ever heard; the built-in timing is flawless. Jim and I use those last twenty-some words all the time, changing the various nouns and verbs as need be: "Damn your [whatever], what does that signify?" is a marvellously useful phrase (particularly when issued in a Masterpice Theatre kind of Georgian-era British accent).

But it bothers me immensely that I can't find the source of the original anecdote. Internet searches: useless. Pawing through old books; worse. I know I have the general flavour of it, particularly that last bit, but I'm very finicky about these things and I like to be completely correct, so it drives me a little crazy that in this instance--with this great anecdote!--I can't be.

(P.S. In case you were wondering, yes, "et" is intended in that anecdote. At one time, in British English, "eat" served as both past and present tense for that verb, but with different pronunciations, not unlike modern-day "read" serving as past and present. Eventually the spellings "ate" and "et" came to represent the past tense, depending on your customary pronunciation of the word: even more eventually, "et" died out, except as a vulgarism. At one time, though, it was perfectly respectable.)


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