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Wick (John Macleod), Week 9: 21 January

As a keen student of contemporary politics on both sides of the Atlantic, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve spent most of this last week sobbing into my handkerchief. And I was surprised to discover that the handkerchief as we know it was first invented in the Middle Ages by King Richard II of England (1377-99). Which raises a fascinating question: what did people do before that? (It also raises another question after a few seconds’ nauseated reflection: what on earth took them so long?)

Luckily there are court documents in the National Archives that capture the exact moment of discovery between Richard II and Isabella, his young French bride:

“Oyez, Richard, mon husband, come-toi back to le bed, c’est freezing. Holdez votres chevaux – ou the hell est ma duvet? Et qu’est-ce que tu fais avec mes scissors?”
“Un moment, ma petite cabbage, je suis almost done.” (He holds up a piece of cloth) “Et voila!”
“Que? C’est un petit square de ma bedsheet. Couleur moi unimpressed.”
“Non, regardez! Je honkais mon hootaire comme ça!”
(Demonstrates by blowing his nose on the square.)
“Eurgh! C’est fort unhygienic! Et très gross aussi.”
“Pas du tout, ma petite brassica de choice. C’est preferable au blowing snot rockets tout over le floor. Remembrez last year quand tout le court had colds, et j’ai dit que nous avons un infestation de slugs?”
“Oui?”
“Ils n’étaient pas slugs.”
“Je voudrais return au maison de ma maman first thing demain. Aussi, je sais that nous vivons dans les Middle Ages, but je voudrais un divorce chop-chop tout de suite.”

Fishing boat in Thurso harbour

Sadly, the fragment ends there. Richard is also credited with insisting that spoons be used at court banquets, thus ending the hilarious custom whereby courtiers had to eat soup with a fork. He’s also supposed to have installed the first royal bathhouse. (On reflection, it’s perhaps not surprising that the English deposed him and put him to death a few year years later.)

Frosty morning

But I digress. Back to the subject of John MacLeod’s gansey that I’m recreating just now. I’ve finished front and back and joined the seed stitch shoulders, and completed the collar. (And while I consider myself a rational being I’ve come to realise that I’m reluctant to make my collars 13 rows; I mean, it’s not like I’m short of bad luck, so who exactly do I think I’m fooling?) Just the relatively plain sleeves to go now.

Incidentally, the word kerchief comes from two French words meaning, literally, a head-cover. So a handkerchief means a head-cover for your hand. This has given me an inordinate amount of pleasure, rivalled only by that moment at school some 45 years ago when I realised that the German for a mitten, Fausthandschuh, meant a hand-shoe for the fist. Aren’t words wonderful?

11 comments to Wick (John Macleod), Week 9: 21 January

  • meg macleod

    beautiful knitting!! and equally inventive french! xmeg

  • Dave

    Hmm…Richard needed some French lessons je pense. Are you sure that handkerchief doesn’t mean a’handy head cover’ – just saying…

    The gansey is looking great btw.

    • Gordon

      ‘Ow dair yow creetisaise ma outra-a-a—geous Frrrench accent…

      And if you’re looking for the ‘Oly Grail, tell your so-called Arthur King we’ve already got one!

  • =Tamar

    Can’t wait to see the finished gansey!

    Hand-kerchief sounds sort of like Honk-ker-Choo…

    I recall that sort of Franglais from French class in school. 🙂

    I read an Englishman’s statement that handkerchiefs were dirty and paper tissues (from China) a waste of paper; he thought that it was much more hygienic to snort onto the ground and grind it into the soil with his shoes. Now I’m trying to recall who it was. It feels like something from the 18th century. If it was Johnson, he probably meant it. If it was Jonathan Swift, he probably didn’t.

  • Gordon

    Ha, one of the pleasures of watching football (soccer) is seeing footballers clear their sinuses much like that, then writhe around on the ground in agony every time they’re tackled…

  • Lois

    I’m delighted to know that the derivation of “franglais” goes back to Richard II, and to be given such a fine example.

    Acadian French, as spoken here, is quite separate and distinct from Quebec French. Acadian franglais incorporates such important concepts as “le hot dog” and “le shopping”. And at “le hockey”, both French and English sides are completely bilingual in swear words.

  • Stephanie

    Overheard (more than once) on the Ontario-Quebec border: “J’ai tooté ma horn!”

    Delighted to have randomly found your blog while daydreaming about designing a sort of a gansey from scratch. Lovely job! I will be back.

  • Gordon

    Hello Lois and Stephanie! I remember someone laughing in Welsh class a decade or so back about the number of words Welsh borrowed from English – “plismon” for policeman being a favourite, and “ambiwlans” for ambulance. The teachers who’d obviously heard all this before, good-naturedly swatted them like a fly by asking them if they sat in their pyjamas on a verandah in their bungalow in a cul-de-sac watching television…

    Making the point that all languages borrow (English heavily influenced by Norse, Norman French and the many dialects of India) if they want to survive. Even French!

    • Stephanie

      A good point, Gordon! My partner is Italian and we have interesting exchanges about just this type of thing. Of course, he also actively enjoys inventing new English words when the ones that I teach him do not sound sufficiently musical to his Italian ear.

      • meg macleod

        part of the pleasur of watching the programmes about venice is the beautiful lilting accent of the narrator……joy to the ears

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