Thursday, June 18, 2020

Three words from Charlotte Brontë

From Jane Eyre (1847), ing, holm, and beck :

How different had this scene looked when I viewed it laid out beneath the iron sky of winter, stiffened in frost, shrouded with snow! — when mists as chill as death wandered to the impulse of east winds along those purple peaks, and rolled down “ing” and holm till they blended with the frozen fog of the beck!
Ing is the most recent of these words. The Oxford English Dictionary has a first citation from 1483 and gives this definition:
a common name in the north of England, and in some other parts, for a meadow; esp. one by the side of a river and more or less swampy or subject to inundation.
The word derives from the Old Norse eng, meaning “meadow, meadow-land.”

Holm goes back to Beowulf, where it means “the sea, the wave.” But the meaning in Brontë’s sentence comes much later:
a piece of flat low-lying ground by a river or stream, submerged or surrounded in time of flood.
This sense of the word derives from Old Norse holmr, “islet in a bay, creek, lake, or river, meadow on the shore.” The earliest citation is undated but predates 1440. The dictionary adds that holm is still
in living use in the south of Scotland (howm) and north of England, and extending far south in place-names; “a flat pasture in Romney Marsh (Kent) is yet called the Holmes” (Way).
“Living use” in that sentence means in 1899, but holm does appear to still be used in place names. And there’s still a Holmes Way.

And now for beck:
a brook or stream: the ordinary name in those parts of England from Lincolnshire to Cumbria which were occupied by the Danes and Norwegians; hence, often used spec. in literature to connote a brook with stony bed, or rugged course, such as are those of the north country.
Beck dates to before 1400 and comes from the Old Norse bekk-r, “brook, rivulet.”

“Such as are those of the north country”: that’s beautiful, no?

A related post
A word from Charlotte Brontë: beck

comments: 11

Stefan said...

“I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
in.” Hamlet, act 3, scene 1

I guess that ‘beck’ here is more at ‘beckon,’ but I couldn’t help but think after reading your post that S uses it for its Danish and Norwegian roots.

Michael Leddy said...

The OED has this beck as coming from Middle English, unrelated. Our weird and wonderful language! Weird too that I wrote this post without ever wondering what the beck in beck and call is all about. The only explanation I can offer is the spellbinding power (no joke) of the Brontë landscape.

Stefan said...

That’s so funny, because I thought of something while walking the dog that clinched it for me: Hamlet is gaslighting Ophelia in this scene (as I know you know), which puts in motion a chain of events that leads to her death by (apparent but ambiguous) suicide—in a brook/beck. Great coincidence, but I guess I am giving Shakespeare too much credit.

But surely “beck and call” is a form of ‘beckon’, don’t you think? I thought maybe a hendiadys construction: to beckon and to call. But I am probably way off.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, I just looked. The verb beck is a shortened form of beckon. And the noun beck (this one) comes from the verb: “A mute signal or significant gesture, especially one indicating assent or notifying a command; e.g. a nod, a motion of the hand or fore-finger, etc.” “Hence, the slightest indication of will or command, and transferred absolute order or control; esp. in phrases to have at one’s beck, to hang upon the beck of, to be at the beck and call of.”

So it’s having someone snap to with a silent gesture or a spoken word.

Michael Leddy said...

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (a find from a library sale!) has the same explanation: gesture and voice.

Richard Abbott said...

Up here in Cumbria, "beck" is used very extensively to indicate pretty much any kind of small stream, in the steeper ground and therefore running faster. As such, they often do indeed have "stony bed, or rugged course", but the word is frequently used to indicate any kind of small river even if not strictly of that character. So the Rothay in Grasmere is very often just called "the beck" by locals, although at this stage it is on the flood plain going into or out of Grasmere Lake. Our other very frequent local word for such a stream is gill (or ghyll) which again derives from Old Norse, this time being the word for a ravine.

"Holm" tends typically to be used of islands in lakes, eg Ladyholme on Windermere, or Rampsholme on Derwentwater. I can't think of very many other placenames with that element round here.

Likewise, "ing" is not hugely common in Cumbria, largely because of the lack of extensive meadow areas! The best example I can think of is a village called Ings on the main valley route running roughly south from Windermere down to Kendal. Ings has a micro-brewery and decent pub, as well as meadow areas beside the river Gowan, but is best known for a speed camera which according to local legend is the most lucrative one in the whole country as regards catching unwary motorists who don't know the road...

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for these details of usage, Richard.

I wonder — are you a reader of Basil Bunting’s poetry? I can’t claim close familiarity, but I know he uses beck.

Richard Abbott said...

I have to confess that I had not heard of him until now, but have just spent a few minutes exploring his most well-known works. He certainly comes over as northern in language, tone and theme, but not specifically Cumbrian. Indeed, there's no reason why he should - Scotswood, where he lived, and Hexham where he died, are both on the east side of the country in Northumberland, rather than the Cumbrian west.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, northern. But his long poem Briggflatts is named for Brigflatts, in Cumbria, which he knew from boyhood. There’s a great photo of him as an old man by the River Rawthey. (Though I’d identify it as a picture with a sign that says “Beware Bull.”)

Richard Abbott said...

How interesting! Sedbergh (and the Rawthey, not to be confused with the Rothay :) ) are in the Pennines part of Cumbria, and (so I just learned) used to be in Yorkshire before one of our several counties reorganisations. I suspect there's a lot of history of varying allegiances in that area.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for adding so much to this post, Richard.