On entering the chthonic tenebrity of my favourite den of iniquity, I spied Maury on a bar stool, gazing at his iPod, apparently spellbound, earphones jacked in. I ambled up.

“Mind if I join you for a spell?”

He looked up at me. “That’s just what she said.” He did not indicate any present person. I surmised that her absent position might have something to do with his present disposition. “I said ‘O.K.,'” he sighed. “I should have said ‘N.O.'”

I saw that he was watching a video. He held up the iPod. “Do you know how many songs have ‘spell’ in them? And how many people have done ‘I Put a Spell on You’ and various songs called ‘You Put a Spell on Me’?”

I looked at his screen. He had a playlist including Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone, and Diamanda Galás for the former, and some I hadn’t heard of before for the latter – The Lucky Cupids, Devil Doll, Kirka… I also noticed Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.”

“Are you trying to dispel the gloom?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “I’m just compelled. Funny… there’s no relation between the pel in compel (and dispel) and spell, but a magic spell tends to compel. And she put a spell on me.”

“Was this ‘she’ an abecedarian or an abracadabrian?” I asked.

“It’s all one. She told a tale so compelling… spelled it out. I took her word as gospel. But it was just a good story.” (Only Maury, in the depths of the blues, can make sophisticated puns: gospel comes from gód spell, Old English for “good story,” a translation of Greek euangelion.) “I saw the end of a dry spell coming, but, oh, she spelled the end, alright. She also spelled trouble – spelled disaster. And I let ‘er! I was under a spell.”

“Well, spill the beans,” I said. “How come you to be so spalled?”

But, although he knew I knew of his checkered romantic history, he was uninclined to tell of the spell checker. He gazed at his glass of J&B, which I surmised was far from his initial. “Only when the spell is finally broken will I have the will to spell it for you – will I even regain my words, man of letters that I am. And that will be a good long spell yet, I fear.” He emptied the glass. “And yes,” he said, “of course I know that spell meaning ‘length of time’ comes from a different Anglo-Saxon root than spell meaning ‘tell the letters’ and ‘magical incantation,’ both of which come from –”

“– the same Germanic root, meaning ‘tell,'” I said, nodding.

“Indeed,” he said. “Proving there’s no telling where words will lead.”

5 responses to “spell

  1. Israel "izzy" Cohen

    > “Well, spill the beans,” I said.

    I think the “beans” in “spill the beans” and “doesn’t know beans about” are both related to Hebrew BiNah = knowledge, understanding.

    The “spill” in “spill the beans” does have the meaning of “tell”, as in “he gave me a long spiel about …” the meaning of “beans.”

    • Hmm. I hadn’t ever stopped to think about the origin of “spill the beans.” It seems to be around a century old, and to have shown up first in the US, according to the sources cited at http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/329900.html . But of course, like so many colloquialisms, its origins are beyond difficult to trace all the way. Knowing beans about something also appears to have come out in the US, and to be perhaps just a little older; see cites at http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/know_beans_about . But a good solid trail would be very interesting for both of those.

      BTW, I didn’t find any etymological connection between spiel and spell, which surprised me. The game word and the story word seem to be separate words from the beginning, unless my sources are simply incomplete in the etymologies. So it’s another very nice coincidence that spiel has come to mean a persuasive story (OED’s first citations for that usage are late 19th century).

  2. Israel "izzy" Cohen

    In Yiddish, spiel has both meanings. A Purim spiel is a Purim play. And a spiel is a long story. Of course, the Purim play recounts the story of the Book of Esther.

    It is interesting that the same two meanings of the near-homonym count (1, 2, 3…) and recount (tell) are also combined in the Hebrew root samekh-peh-resh. LiSPoR = to tell and to count.

  3. In fine form you are, Sesquiotic!

  4. Pingback: ensorcel | Sesquiotica

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