Daily Archives: August 18, 2010


This word, I must confess, has a particular inescapable tone for me, given it by Bugs Bunny, who, laughing derisively at one nemesis or another, said “What a maroon!”

Now, we may reasonably conclude that this was a mutation of moron, but for me, a certain shade of mauve has been forever stained with the tarnish of foolishness. As has the fact of being stranded on an island.

To make matters worse, at a more recent point (perhaps a decade and a half ago), reading through a cookbook written by a guy with mob connections who included anecdotes along with his recipes, I found that a favourite expletive among the Italian-American circle of the author was marrone.

So, great. Now not just dumb, but venal, violent, et cetera.

Well you may wonder why I would let such chestnuts flavour a word so strongly. But with this word, one simply can’t escape the flavour of chestnuts. After all, marrone and French marron mean “chestnut,” and it is from them that we get the word for the colour. Yes, yes, I know, chestnuts are a rich brown, not what we would normally call maroon in colour – maroon is, as the OED puts it, more like claret (red Bordeaux), which is to say a deeper, richer red than Burgundy. It can also be brownish-crimson, and that would seem to have been its path from nuts to wine. Meanwhile, through the same connection, it also names a kind of firework that makes a loud bang – because a chestnut tossed on a fire will do the same once it’s heated up enough.

But how does it get from nuts to desert islands? Well, it doesn’t quite. It’s more like being on the island and going nuts. That is to say, the word for the stranded person (which in turn became the verb for stranding) started out as a different word and, through modifications, came to look like the word for the chestnut.

That’s right, no crimson tales of swashbuckling here. Actually, the first maroons were not people left behind or stranded by a storm; rather, they were people who wanted to get away. Slaves. Slaves in the West Indies, specifically. To get away from working on plantations, they escaped to inhospitable regions – not desert islands but rather the mountainous interiors of the islands they were already on (and of Suriname). From this, they got the name cimarróns, from Spanish cima “peak, summit” (compare Spanish cimarra “wild place”). And subsequently, from the idea of isolation and exile, came the verb meaning “leave ashore on a desolate island or coast” (Désolé? Désolé, monsieur, nous allons vous quitter.)

So there you have it. Both sides do have the whiff of gunpowder – the slave rebellions and pirates on one side, and the fireworks on the other side – and the crimson to boot. And actually the influence is mutual: cimarrón may have been clipped to be like marron, but it appears that the island sense was first to move to maroon and the chestnut followed after.

There aren’t too many connections between the sea and trees, certainly; I’m put in mind of Tom Lewis’s song “Marching Inland,” which starts as follows:

Lord Nelson knew the perfect way to cure your “mal-de-mer,”
So if you pay attention, his secret I will share,
To any sea-sick sailor he’d give this advice for free:
“If you’re feeling sea-sick, sit underneath a tree!”

Maroon does have a mer sound at the start, too – as in la marée haute, high tide. And with the nautical connection, how could it escape getting the oon ending? Army and navy, they have their poltroons, dragoons, saloons, typhoons, lagoons… not that oon only shows up in that mileu, of course; it also shows up, for instance, in cartoon. And in cartoons.

Thanks to Elaine Freedman for suggesting maroon.


Cwm? WTF? Ths wrd hs n vwl! What is it, an initialism for “come with me”?

Well, no, at least not in this case. And it does have a vowel. A double one, in fact: a double u, which is w. Which represents a vowel in Welsh. Remember: a vowel is a sound, not a letter. And when you say this word, /kum/, you undeniably say a vowel. The fact that w does not normally represent a vowel in English is quite immaterial. We stole this word from Welsh fair and square. (Well, OK, we didn’t steal it – Welsh still has it and uses it. We copied it. Without altering it.)

Actually, this word does have an apparent English cognate, coomb (also spelled combe and comb in place names – as in Branscombe, Eastcomb, etc.). I say apparent because while it refers to the same sort of thing as cwm, it has a homonym that is derived from Germanic roots and refers to a cup. And it just happens that what cwm names is rather cuplike.

Well, it can be rather cuplike. In the original sense, it’s a valley; more particularly, it’s a hollow at the head of a valley, shaped like half a cup, dug out by a glacier. We have another word for these in English, a word we stole (copied!) from French: cirque. A coomb, for its part, can be a small cuplike hanging valley, or a deep notch valley, or a valley inlet from the sea, depending on which part of England you’re in.

The word cwm itself has a certain roundness to it in the saying, the tongue making a hollow after touching at the back and the lips closing off the hollow; it’s a bit like how you hold your mouth if you have a hot piece of potato in it. The sense of closedness of the roundness gets an added boost from the spelling. As to the form, we can certainly see a cirque in the c, and perhaps a pair of valleys in the w and a hillside in the m. But, you know, it could just as easily be a lamp with a standing screen and some drapes, or what have you.

This cwm, though it names a glacier-made hollow, nonetheless has an inviting quality. Aside from looking like it says “come with me,” it sounds like a northern English pronunciation of come. But who’s saying “come” to whom? My first reaction is that the addressee is Rhonda. Of “Help Me Rhonda”? Well, yeah, no, I guess not. The person who is doing the guiding and inviting is God, and Cwm Rhondda is the name of a tune to which one of the grand old Protestant hymns is set. The usual text begins “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah.” A more direct translation of the original Welsh would be “Lord, lead me through the wilderness.” The first verse of the Welsh is as follows (just because I love looking at Welsh):

Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch,
Fi, bererin gwael ei wedd,
Nad oes ynof nerth na bywyd
Fel yn gorwedd yn y bedd:
Hollalluog, Hollalluog,
Ydyw’r Un a’m cwyd i’r lan.
Ydyw’r Un a’m cwyd i’r lan.

Not see cwm rhondda in there? No, there’s no valley of the shadow of Rhonda. Actually Cwm Rhondda is the place the tune is from, the Rhondda valley in Wales. The Rhondda valley, a former coal mining area in south Wales, is actually two valleys (w?), one large and one small, merging at the bottom. Rhondda, for its part, means something on the order of “babbling” as in the sound of a brook – or the Rhondda river. (By the way, the rh stands for a voiceless /r/ and the dd stands for the voiced dental fricative we use at the beginning of the.)

The Rhondda valley has quite an interesting social history, being heavily involved in the changing tides of fortune of industrialization (the coal working men), and passing from a strongly Welsh-speaking area to an English-speaking one just in the past century. Its history is not as short and elegant as cwm, nor as glacial as a cirque. I leave it to the interested to look it up further.