Every now and then I traipse past a British phrase that trips me up, flummoxes me, stops me dead in my polyglot tracks, and induces the onset of IWH (instant word humility).
It happened today with ‘parping klaxons.’
How many North Americans, I wonder, would recognize that phrase? I certainly did not know what it meant when I read about the last night of the Prom Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England. The BBC Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (“The Proms”) are one of the most pleasant and civil of London traditions. Can an event be civil and raucous all at the same time? Indeed yes! Londoners who attend the last night of The Proms are given to tossing paper birds which drift by the dozens under the vaulted span of the great hall's ceiling. The audience also brings to the concert all manner of noisemakers and horns and they do stand up, shout, and “parp klaxons.”
There are 70 concerts every year from July to September. On the last night of The Proms, sundry and variegated Brits flock together like clustering rooks to caw out in song all the old warhorses of the inspirational British hymnal. One anthem always sung is that glorious summons of mystico-patriotic effluvium, “Jerusalem,” William Blake’s mighty poem, set to music in 1916 by C. Hubert H. Parry, usually played at The Proms in a vibrant orchestration by Sir Edward Elgar. The last night of The Proms often concludes with the rafter-thwacking roar of a thousand people singing “Rule, Britannia.” If you can’t go, there is a superb EMI recording of The Last Night of The Proms, on which you may listen in stereo to a vast and happy crowd of distinctly unphlegmatic Londoners bellowing their joy. There is also a BBC DVD, whose cover art is pictured below. Check out the words of the songs at the bottom of today’s column.
Please Parp Pleasingly
Parp first appears in print in 1936 as an interjection imitating the sound of a car horn. Parp! Parp! By 1943 it was a noun meaning ‘a honking sound.’ Soon afterward to parp was a verb meaning to speak in a loud, honking manner or to utter words abruptly. Parp also means to sound the horn of an automobile. In one developed meaning of the word parp it represents the sound of emitted flatulence, and is thus a synonym for fart.
Sound of the Klaxon: Ah-OOOOOO-Gah!
When I was a kid watching too much television, one of the early series was “The Silent Service,” all about American submarines in World War Two. It began with repeated blasts of a klaxon: AH-OOOOO-GAH! AH-OOOOO-GAH! Then the submarine captain would bark an order, “Dive! Dive! Give me a five-degree down-bubble.” My brother and I often tried to reproduce a down-bubble in the bathtub on Saturday evening. Neither of us drowned.
The Klaxon was a trademarked horn for automobiles, the electric version invented by Dr. Miller Reese Hutchison, an American inventor and an associate of the more famous inventor Thomas Edison. The Oxford English Dictionary has a charmingly old-fashioned and quaint definition when it refers to the klaxon as “the hooter on a motor vehicle.” How very retro! Hooters in America are almost always a vulgarism for breasts. There was, and may still be, a chain of restaurants called Hooters where bare-breasted waitresses bring you your meal, their tits abobbling as they bound up to the table. One prays that nothing untoward has flopped into one’s vichyssoise on the way from the kitchen, necessitating a quick rendition of Bob Hope's theme song, “Thanks for the Mammary.” One imagines, because it is a cold soup, that it would tend to erect the server's nipples. But perhaps that is a desideratum at Hooters? The idea of breasts stirring one's food is supposedly erotic to Americans. No wonder psychiatry throve there.
Hutchison’s electromechanical klaxon horn was eventually used on trains, ships, and model-T Fords. I’m going to review the etymology, but first here is part of the Wikipedia entry on the famous horn:
“The Klaxon's characteristic sound is produced by a spring-steel diaphragm with a rivet in the centre that is repeatedly struck by the teeth of a rotating cog-wheel. The diaphragm is attached to a horn which acts as an acoustic transformer as well as controlling the direction of the sound.
In the first klaxons, the wheel was driven either by hand or by an electric motor. The Lovell-McConnell Manufacturing Co. of New Jersey bought the rights to the device in 1908.
Klaxons were first fitted to automobiles and bicycles in 1908. Electric klaxons were the first electrical devices to be fitted to private automobiles. They were originally powered by 6-volt dry cells, and from 1911 by rechargeable batteries. Later hand-powered versions were used as military evacuation alarms and factory sirens. The klaxon is also famous for its use as a submarine dive alarm.
The English company Klaxon Signals Ltd. has been based in Oldham, England for the last 80 years, with premises also in Birmingham. The French Klaxon company was acquired by the Italian Fiamm Group in the 1990s.”
Etymology of Klaxon
F. W. Lovell, the founder of the American company refered to above, coined the name klaxon from the Greek verb klazein, ‘to make a loud noise,’ one of whose forms is klazon. Akin is the Greek noun klange which meant ‘a loud twang of the string of a lute’ or other stringed instrument that accompanied the recitation of Homeric epics. So we can imagine this distant ancestor of the Klaxon car horn twanging loudly to represent some dramatic pause in Odysseus’ adventures. Related to that Greek word is the Latin (and now English) noun clangor ‘a loud noise.’ Even more interesting relatives of the Indo-European root are German Gelachter and English laughter, both loud noises too. Intermediate forms of the root include Old Frisian hlakkia. All descend from the echoic Indo-European *klak- ‘to make a loud noise.’
The word was also borrowed into modern French where le klaxon is still the common word for ‘car horn.’ To honk the horn of your car is klaxonner.
When Britain first, at heaven’s command,
Arose from out the azure main,
Arose, arose, arose from out the azure main.
This was the charter, the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang the strain.
Britannia rule the waves.
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
The nations not so blest as thee,
Must in their turn to tyrants fall,
Must in their turn, must in their turn,
To tyrants fall,
While thou shall flourish,
Shall flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful from each foreign stroke.
More dreadful, more dreadful
From each foreign stroke.
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame,
All their attempts to bend thee down,
All their attempts, all their attempts
To bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame.
But work their woe and thy renown.
To thee belongs the rural reign,
Thy cities shall with commerce shine,
Thy cities shall, thy cities shall
With commerce shine.
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
The muses still, with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair,
Shall to thy happy coast,
Thy happy coasts repair,
Best isle of beauty,
With matchless beauty crowned,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
Jerusalem , the poem by William Blake
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of Desire;
Bring me my Spear; O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant Land.
Notes on Jerusalem from The Wikipedia:
“The text of the poem was inspired by the legend that Jesus, while still a young man, accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to the English town of Glastonbury. Blake's biographers note that he believed in this legend; however, the poem's theme is subject to much sharper debate, probably accounting for its popularity across the philosophical spectrum. As a paean to a mythical Englishness the poem has come under criticism. Consequently some see it as unsuitable as an English National Anthem, and its reference to a foreign city as puzzling to other nations. It is unlikely that Blake intended such a literal interpretation, however, or that most who sing and love the song believe in such a literal reading of the lyrics; legends contain important truths to many people.
One particular line from the poem, “Bring me my chariot of fire” inspired the title of a film “ Chariots of Fire.” Blake here draws on a passage from 2 Kings 2:11, where the Old Testament prophet Elijah is taken directly to heaven: ‘And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.’ A church congregation sings “Jerusalem” at the close of the film.
The song also appears in Tony Richardson’s film “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” as the Borstal hymn.”
And so we bring this anfractuous journey to an end, as we utter a modest parp, a humble Ah-OOOOO-Gah!, and klaxon off into the Canadian autumn.
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
In the best of the spiritual tradition, Bill is the shape-shifter who constantly leads you to all the places you need to find in your soul. Every page is a new country, an invitation to an excursion into the wonderland of rich connections with the myriad of sources of what so often we unthinkingly wield as a prosaic tool.
Pay absolutely no attention to anyone who tells you that this book is anything but pure gold. It’s simply not true, sadly, that all the world loves a lover. Particularly someone whose love is so boundless.
But Sir William is fearless. You don’t earn your keep as a medicine man if you have a thin skin. While I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could walk away from this book unmoved by its wit, its wisdom and the beautiful transparency by which the author celebrates the glorious romp of our almost unlimited linguistic exuberance, I have to sadly conclude that once in a while, you do meet someone who can’t see the forest for the trees, eh?
Read this book. Leave it on the sofa instead of the $%#!*$% TV remote. Maybe someone you care about will pick it up, even just for a moment, and fall in love with their heritage?
Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
(Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos.)
Jenni French of San Francisco, California writes on her blog “My Corner of the Universe” for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
“I admit it: I’m a word nerd. I love words: weird words, long words, obscure words, funny words. This book is right up my alley. With chapters like “Nautical Words,” “Creepy Words,” and “Edible Words,” I have enjoyed every page of this book.
And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it.
My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: “What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names” (19).
I’m sure I’ll have another favorite sentence in a day or two.
This book is just that good and just that entertaining.”
(Author Bill Casselman replies: “Thanks, Jenni!” )
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word essays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog “Creativity Unlimited” of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
Tags: 365 things to look forward to, books, reading
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one.
If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . .
Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?”
Dear Mr. Casselman,
A search for the origins of an improbable-looking word, paraprosdokian, led me to the first piece of your prose I have had the pleasure of reading, “The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian & Lazy Con Artists of Academe.” I have just placed an order for Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik, Canadian Words & Sayings, and As The Canoe Tips, and will add more of your titles as I finish these.
I have just retired from a 40-plus year career in book publishing, the last thirty years spent as director/editor of a number of university presses, attempting to sort the genuine writers from the “Lazy Con Artists of Academe.” Sad to say, the latter have so over-bred the former that I could no longer see the rare gem in the avalanches of offal that daily swamped my office and desk. I visited your website and spent far too long there; it was a pleasure to meet a real writer through his work.
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman’s Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the “profligate prof-lets.” During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let’s first book, “Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it.”
I know I will enjoy your books. Keep up the good work.
University of New Mexico Press, among others