the great adventure began one day when bluestocking the bard was looking something up in the local library. discerning that the book she needed wasn’t there, she muttered under her breath, ‘darn!’, and it’s a good thing it wasn’t something stronger, for it echoed rather loudly, as stage whispers do, in the still, stiff silence of that stern and sullen place. at once the woman behind her, who had been poking about in some of the dustier, cobwebbier shelves, abandoning all decorum, screamed ‘yoicks!’ spun on her stubby high heel and stared bluestocking full in the face. ‘tally ho!’ she added, remembering almost to whisper. she beamed and nodded. ‘darn,’ she said. ‘just the one i’m after.’
‘one what?’ asked bluestocking.
‘panting syllable. that’s what ‘darn’ is to me. and i’m after that little one. i’ve been on is track a long while and i know im well. you can catch scent of im from donegal to china and all the way up the danube and down the dnieper changing from tin to tan and from tan to can and every which way and now ere e is ere: darn.’ she was short and muscular with big bowling-ball breasts, powerful thighs and thick, white fingers. ‘etty moloji,’ she concluded proffering that hand. bluestocking shook it and smiled her widest, and would have said, ‘oh, how interesting,’ but the librarian caught her eye with a sombre glare and she only nodded. but as she left the library, she found etty beside her, tugging her sleeve. ‘you see i need to know why you said “darn” instead of “blast” or “shit” or something. where and when did you first hear it, used how, and by whom, and when and where and why did you first start using it yourself. and much more. may we walk together a space.’
‘certainly. why, i’d be helping scholarship. i first heard darn from my mother and father when i was little, and i asked them what it meant and they said it had no meaning: it was just something you say. i suppose it must have been some old reference to the goddess dana. she’s well-documented anyway. where would you like to walk?’
‘cornwall? there’s such lots of lovely runnable syllables there. and you often catch glimpses of our darn.’
‘well, that’s fine with me,’ said bluestocking the bard. ‘my great grandfather was a Cornishman.’
‘well, you mean a den, then?’
‘a dane? no, a cornishman.’
‘the cornish word for man is den.’
‘oh, i see, it only sounds like dane.’
‘well, i wouldn’t say only. it’s going beyond the evidence to say they’re the same word, but we should not rule out the possibility, which is rather strong in this instance, although whether dane came from den or vice versa, or whether both came from a common source extinct or extant can’t be guessed at yet. added to which there are other possibilities, some of them equally strong. greeks intermarried with britons long ago, though the history documenting it has not been understood.’
‘oh, are you going to refer now to the danaans? because weren’t greeks once called danaans?’
‘well, it’s not as simple as that. i was thinkin of tirant lo blanc. but it goes back further, you see: it’s about tin. now, ere in cornwall’ (which is where they now were) ‘they ad a tin-trade, and people came from everywhere, all of them talking their eads orf an in all sorts of languages and foreign accents, ship-board creoles, pidgins and things. among them they’d’ve pronounced tin in every possibly way: tin, tan, ton, tyn, tun, twn, tn, and then some said chin and gave us china (there was also a pottery industry, making fine china, too; some said can, cen or even sin, and there’s the cin of incinerator. there’s shine, sheen and then other metals, zinc, tungsten and other industries that use tin, or other metals, such as dying, paint-making and leather-making give us tint, tan, tone and so on. and then all kinds of containers are made of metals, some of them named for the metal: tins, cans, tanks, and here’s a verb: contain and, depending what you put in em and how long it pullulates, stench, and stink. even the noise it makes is a din. and that’s only the english words. Cornish has tan, meaning fire, and tinn or dinn, meaning hard, stern, and uncompromising, and related to the english stern. . . ‘
‘what’s fire got to do with it?’ bluestocking couldn’t help asking.
‘they made their fires in tins.’
‘the people who used the word tin to mean fire. they heated their spaces by lighting a fire inside a tin. that would get hot and warn the room. light the fire would mean the same as light the tin. some people would still say that today. the irish word for fire is tine, sometimes pronounced like chin-é or chin-ye. maybe even chimney means fires. -ne or -ney is a plural ending in some old dialects. it’s like the irish –anna. means the same as the english any in some instances.’
‘and stern too? where does the s come from?’
‘that’s a long story,’ said etty. ‘let’s call in at the diwotti and talk about it over pastiow ha pott te.’
‘good idea,’ said bluestocking, and into the diwotti they went.
don’t miss the next exciting instalment: where the s came from