Daily Archives: August 13, 2010


Do you know the song “John Brown’s Body”? Well, you know the tune, for sure, because Julia Ward Howe wrote some “good words for that stirring tune”: The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Anyway, the older words in the first verse, the John Brown words, go something like this:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
His soul’s marching on!

Now, of course, if he had been cremated, he’d be smoldering instead, but either way, ashes to ashes and dust to dust return: we’re made of earth and we return to earth.

Which is actually what mouldering is all about. When this fine (or coarse) clay mould of ours is broken, it will decay – and perhaps there will be mould, but with modern practices, probably not – and it will return to soil, which is to mould.

But didn’t I just say there would be no mould? No, no mould, but there will be mould. Ah, you see, not just bodies but words, too, can over time wear down and become indistinguishable. The mould that means that gross stuff that grows on food in your fridge comes from a verb moulen, which is unrelated to the mould that refers to something used to form things – a hollow shape, a model – which is from modulum (so, yes, it’s related to model), and both are unrelated to the original word mould, which refers to loose earth or soil. But almost no one uses mould in the “dirt” sense now, while the two words that merged with it – very likely under its influence – are quite common. Well, never mind, it all comes together in the end.

And moulder with its er suffix is a frequentative verb like flicker and shudder. It means indeed “decay to dust” or “become dirt” or similar, as it is based on that original mould (the one that now seems broken, but not the kind of mould one speaks of breaking). Its sense has broadened a bit, but it has also been influenced by that new mould that has grown on it, so now we think of not just any old decay but that dank, mildewy kind of rotting.

Doesn’t the very word moulder seem kind of moist and dank, or at least like dark, soft soil? With that soft /m/ and the dark and deep /o/ pulling back into the /l/ – that “dark” /l/ that comes after vowels in English, with the back of the tongue raised. And then, after touching on the /d/, it decays with a slow syllabic /r/. It has a more solid role than mud, and while the m is no louder the move to /o/ can make it longer, as though ruled by om: meditate on these things, find the ur-model of the world. (Perhaps mould is to our world as ylem is to the universe.)

Ah, not such cheery thoughts – dark and deep, but not necessarily lovely. But I have promises to keep, and words to write before I sleep. And whether or not I moulder, I’m older – as are we all.