Monday, September 29, 2008


Leaving T.H. White aside for the moment, I'm going back to my own often overly glib use of English after catching myself using the word "sanguine" a couple of times recently. It is not a word I would say, but it is apparently one I write without hesitation. I would never say "I am not overly sanguine about the prospect." I would say "I am not too confident about that." Or "I am not optimistic."
So why "sanguine"? Does it have a further (or, my fear, an entirely different)meaning than the more commonplace words? It sounds like it has something to do with blood. But perhaps not. Here goes:

Well, I am uncharacteristically close to the mark on this one. The word does mean cheerful or optimistic and it also means "of the color of blood" or red. The connection between the two lies in the medieval theory of the body as having four humors, or fluids--blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile. Charming. Anyway, one's personality was supposed to be controlled by one's dominant humor. If one was ruled by their blood, they were supposed to have a ruddy face and the qualities of courage, hope and the willingness to fall in love. Not too shabby. I hesitate to think what the qualities of one ruled by black bile were.

The dictionary notes that "sanguine" and "sanguinary" are related linguistically but very different in meaning. "Sanguinary" means bloodthirsty. I'd be willing to bet that most of the sanguinary types were, and probably still are, mainly the envious black bile people. Probably only hoping to put a few roses in their cheeks...

Sunday, September 21, 2008


I think that my own last post threw me so much that it's taken me this long to recover. The thing with language is that, apparently, you can never get through it. You try to pin down one tiny aspect and does it reward you for your efforts? No. It leads you on to further conundrums.

This was the little passage that stymied me:
"a small turret corbelled out at parapet level, usually at the corners of a tower."

Never mind that I probably don't properly know what a parapet is. Let's just stick with 'corbelled' for the nonce. (And, yes, I used
nonce deliberately, as it's probably yet another word I will have to research.)

Anyway, I think we can somewhat deduce this. From the above passage, I think we can picture a rounded tower, coming out of square walls. I have no idea how they go about doing this, but at least I have an image. So let's go to a stricter definition:

corbelled: to provide with or support by corbels

So, inevitably, what's a corbel?

Basically its a bracket. It's typically used to support an arch or a cornice. And no, I don't know what a cornice is either. Is this blog really going to be bogged down in architecture? Well, I suppose there are worse fates. We can think of it as something that holds something else up.

The most interesting thing is that 'corbel' has this basis in Middle English, taken from old French. It is completely apt for T. H. White's novel, as the Arthurian period is based in the Norman, ie, French invasion. And corbel apparently comes from the word corp, which means raven. Because the corbels reminded someone of the shape of a raven's beak.

I always love when a somewhat ornate word turns out to have very homely beginnings. Someone saw the shape and thought, "that reminds me of a raven!"

Hope no one minds if I stay in White's universe for a long time, because there are an awful lot of words that I've been glossing over.

Monday, September 8, 2008


This is another one from The Once and Future King, by T.H.White. It is evident from the text that this word relates to warfare or at the very least defense--I'm apparently too lazy to go and look up the exact quote right now. However, I am not too lazy to relate that the only connection I have to the word 'barbican' is "The Barbican School of Modeling", which, unless modeling is a much more aggressive skill than I've been led to believe, is puzzling, to say the least...

Well, thanks to the internet, we actually have easy access to things like "The T.H. White glossary", which will not only happily provide us a definition of 'barbican', but actually cite the page reference, so that I can now quote the sentence it appeared in. Page 41: "The stone part of the drawbridge with its barbican and the bartizans of the gatehouse are in good repair."

I'd noted that "bartizan" in reading, but thought I could gloss over it. Apparently not.

First, let us go to that old Barbican School of Modeling reference, for I feel sure I have now found its source. I actually haven't been so successful finding any listing for such a school, but any reference obviously is trying to link to the Barbican Theatre in London, and get a "posh" connotation by inference. The Barbican Centre in London is all about theatre, dance, music and the like, and so actually rather far from the original definition of the word.


"A tower or other fortification on the approach to a castle or town, especially at a gate or a drawbridge." (thanks,!)

But a certain Pettifer at the T.H. White site goes a little further: "An outer extension to a gateway, increasing the number of barriers which a besieger had to force his way through. The commonest type of barbican is a walled passage projecting from the front of the gatehouse proper."

Got it? Good. Because now we are on to 'bartizan', which the White glossary refers to as "a small turret corbelled out at parapet level, usually at the corners of a tower."