Wednesday, May 11, 2016
I am certain to have mentioned in the past, and perhaps on more than one occasion, a wonderful old book by Richard Chevenix Trench called The Study of Words. It originated in a series of lectures to Anglican seminarians in 1850 or so and went through many nineteenth-century editions. Together with Owen Barfield’s brilliant History in English Words (1926), which might be regarded as its more philosophical offspring, it had a formative influence on the way I think about our English tongue, which is after all the raw material of my life’s work of literary study. These books insist on the ethical dimension in linguistic development; and it is that emphasis that makes them more interesting to me than the arguments between proponents and opponents of Noam Chomsky.
I thought of Trench when on the same day that I spotted from my truck cab what I think was my first loosestrife bloom of the season I heard Hilary Clinton on the news calling Donald Trump a “loose cannon”. The purple loosestrife, which is now found almost everywhere wet enough, is for many North American botanists a menacing invader and a threat to biodiversity, but I love to see it. However, it is the name that interests me here. In ancient Greece it was apparently called lusimachion, honoring an important soldier, Lusimachos. Only a truly great civilization names flowers rather than tanks after their generals. However, fanciful etymologists soon decided that what it really meant was something that loosed (from luein) battle or strife (mache). Elizabeth Kent, sister-in-law to Leigh Hunt and author of the very popular though anonymously published Flora Domestica (1823) ran with this invention and claimed that the Romans put loosestrife under the yokes of matched oxen because it helped the animals get along and work better together. It loosed their strife.
But nobody knows what loose used to mean either. In the radio interview alluded to earlier, it became obvious to me that although Mrs. Clinton correctly characterized Donald Trump as a “loose cannon”, neither she nor her interviewer actually knew what a loose cannon is—or rather was, since we no longer have the problem. They seem to think it means something along the lines of “scatter-shot”. If you yourself are in the dark on this important matter, I cannot too highly recommend the Horatio Hornblower books by C. S. Forester. Early European artillery had a few fixed pieces, but most cannons were essentially long movable barrels to be lugged from one emplacement to another. Poor guys were forever being ruptured, maimed, or crushed trying to move these things about. Using such guns on warships was particularly hazardous. The weight of the smallest cannons, designed for a projectile of about two pounds, was approximately six hundred pounds. Weights increased dramatically for larger shot. The “big guns” (twenty-four and thirty-two pounders) could easily weigh a couple of tons. Now imagine you are in the cramped, dark, and smoky gun deck of the Fighting Temeraire, and one of its ninety-eight monstrous metal cylinders breaks or is blown free of its restraints and starts rolling around at gravity’s caprice with every haw, heave, pitch and roll of the ship’s motion. Such a loose cannon, having worked up the momentum of a long roll, is perfectly capable of breaking through the hull; but more immediately it is likely to squash, bisect, or decapitate any seaman in its way, with special preference given to those whose desperate assignment is to retake control of it. The danger posed by a loose cannon has nothing to do with its firing projectiles. It is in the weight, mobility, and unpredictable movement of the instrument itself.
Mr. Trump, who claims that as president he would revel in his unpredictability, is presumably not discomfited to be called a loose cannon. Loose cannons are not the only troublesome bits of loose metal that now have for us a mainly metaphorical existence. Perhaps you know someone who from time to time “flies off the handle”. This is a reference to the distressing ungovernability of the iron heads of wooden-handled tools the operation of which involves violent percussive force. One doesn’t want to be struck by a volatile hammer- or axe-head—nor, at least in Iron Age societies, does one want to lose the head itself (See 1 Kings 6:6).
Should you find my use of volatile somewhat odd, you might like to consult another biblical verse, Psalm 50:11, which in the Authorized Version begins “I know all the fowls of the mountains…” I happened to run into this in a medieval Latin text recently. The author naturally used the Vulgate, where just to confuse us the number of the psalm is 49 and the birds are in the heavens rather than the mountains. The text begins Cognovi omnia volatilia…“I have known all the flying things [birds] …” I had never in eight decades tumbled to the obvious fact that our nearly obsolete word fowl (German Vogel) captures the essence of birdness—flying—much better than does our bird. So, yes, Mr. Trump is a loose cannon, and yes, he flies off the handle, and, again yes, his considerable volatility makes him quite a rara avis.