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Wick (John Macleod), Week 1: 26 November

I’ve always been intrigued by the way that words change their meanings over time, slipping from concept to concept wherever there’s a gap in the language, like restless ghosts in search of a new host. One example of this is the word panache, borrowed from the French, which now means a sort of flamboyant confidence. But originally it meant the plume on a cavalryman’s helmet. It seems that because the cavalry were famous for their swagger and dash—think Sergeant Troy in Return of the Native—the word gradually transferred itself away from the thing and onto the behaviour.

Another example is that amazingly useful word for a small object to string on a necklace, bead. Originally in Old English the word gebed meant a prayer or request, and comes from the same root that gives us bid in modern English, and bitte in German. Back in the day, people strung counters together to tell, or count, their prayers, and over time the word shifted from the prayer to the thing. (Which of course makes one wonder: what on earth did they call beads before they were called beads?)

©Wick Heritage Society. Used with permission.

In gansey news, the Morwenstow gansey is washed, blocked and good to go, and I have, naturally, begun the next. This one is in Frangipani sea spray, a suitably light colour for the long, dark winter evenings (and days; this is Wick, after all). As trailed the other week, this gansey is modelled on one of the Johnston Collection of old Caithness fishermen’s photographs: in this case, the one worn by John MacLeod, pictured here. The lower body is interesting: not plain, but blocks of three knit stitches separated by a purl-knit-purl-knit-purl combination (I’ll let you know over the coming weeks how annoying this is to knit for twelve inches…). More information and a pattern chart next week.

Spot the Seal. There are about nine.

Finally this week—and yes, I know it’s a bit random but bear with me, I’ve got a cold—I came across this splendid incident of royal ‘barberism’ in the Penguin History of Scotland. The Scots King James IV married the English Princess Margaret in 1503, and apparently his beard at the time was, to quote a contemporary, “somthynge long” (hence his winning the coveted “Monarch Most Resembling a Badger” award five years running). The Countess of Surrey and her daughter, Lady Grey, had accompanied the new bride to Scotland for the wedding; and judging by the king’s household accounts they seem to have taken mattersliterallyinto their own hands:

Item, the ix day of August, eftir the marriage, for xv elne [ells] claith of gold to the Countess of Surry of England, when scho and hir dochter Lady Gray clippit the King is berd…”

17 comments to Wick (John Macleod), Week 1: 26 November

  • Lois

    Fifteen ells? That must have been quite a beard! And cloth of gold!

    Or did barbers have a much higher pay scale in those days?

  • Lynne

    How many inches is the welt on the Seaspray, Gordon? It looks longer than the Navy, or is that just a photographic illusion?

    • Gordon

      Hi Lynne, such is the magic of photography! It’s actually shorter than the navy one – which was four inches; this one is just over 3.5 inches.

  • Gordon

    Hi Lois, I think the barber was well remunerated when she was the Countess of Surrey!

    History is, alas, silent on the question of whether this quantity of cloth of gold is the origin of the British exclamation of surprise, “Flipping ‘ell!”

    • Lois

      I have visions of the bride arising in the morning, picking long hairs from her person, and saying to her attendants “Enough of this!”

      • Gordon

        I’m beginning to wonder if James was the origin of the Rapunzel legend, and he let down his beard to enable daring princesses climb up to rescue him!

        • Lois

          Aha! Methinks the Countess was unaware that an English ell is about 45 inches, but a Scots ell is 37 inches!

          No aspersions on Scottish reputations intended or implied.

  • =Tamar

    Were they paid the cloth for clipping the beard, or was that the fine paid for having clipped it without permission, and he was just in a good mood so they weren’t executed?

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, it’s the most expensive barber’s cloth in the history of Scottish beards! Though I do like the idea of the king getting totally drunk one night and waking up shaved all over with a novelty tattoo on his forehead, like all those stag dos one reads about…

  • Now that’s a gansey! Lovely! I’m comsidering throwing my embroidery in the cup board and start one…

  • Dee

    What a cheerful color for the new gansey!

    Language is fascinating. I find it especially interesting how a common origin word may spread to several languages, and the resulting words may either retain meanings quite close to the original, or else branch off in all directions, as in your examples.

    I hope the royal barbers had a glorious garment or two made from all that cloth of gold!

  • Gordon

    Hello Dee, or to quote everyone’s favourite egg: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

    I love the fact that “bewildered” used to mean literally lost in the wilds. Now it just means confused. But the original meaning is still there underneath, like wallpaper that’s been painted over – all it needs is a bit of scraping away…

  • Sharon in Surrey

    Just love the color of the new Gansey!!! I wish I could actually SEE the pattern but I’ve squinted myself almost blind trying to figure it out in the enlarged photo the computer will give me to no avail . . . . look after that cough – I recommend flavored booze. Honey, lemon, hot water & vodka work a treat before bed as does my home made cough syrup made by covering a quart of soft fruit with two cups of sugar & enough cheap vodka to fill a two quart jar. I let it sit on the counter until the sugar dissolves & drink it in a shot glass to calm the cough.

    • Gordon

      Hi Sharon, you should get a proper view of the pattern next week (week 3) – but it has “closed up” quite a bit with all those purl columns.

      I like your recipe for a toddy- the Highland tradition being honey, lemon and whisky, in fact, forget the honey and lemon!

  • Ineke

    Hi, you mentioned in Old English the word “gebed” meant a prayer.
    It is still a common Dutch word for a prayer.

    • Gordon

      Hi Ineke, thanks for this. I guess Britain has always been a part of Europe, linguistically, culturally, politically and of course geographically. Until now… (*sob*!)

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