This is a word of deception. It looks like spring – but is it a false spring? Indeed, it ceases to be spring even before the unexpected silent ending: it rhymes with hinge, and has a taste of injure.
It is not related to hinge, though a springe can lead to swinging; a springe is a snare attached to a spring such as a green branch. The arrangement varies, but those who want a bit of iconicity in the form of this modestly symmetrical word may see the i as the attachment point of the spring and the p and g as the pegs holding the rope to the ground. But, really, springe looks more like a hinge; a springe looks more like an an upside-down U next to a small o. It simply sits ready, the wood cocked, until some unsuspecting bird errs into it and is caught up: the spring is released and the bird is suddenly aloft, and not in the way it wants to be. Just as the tongue of the speaker is suddenly not at the velum but touching the tip and coming to a hard end with the silent loop of the e, the bird is not on the soft ground but at the tip of a tree and silenced by a loop.
Oh, and what kind of bird? Well, springes can catch many kinds, but they are most associated with woodcocks. And not per se because springes are made with cocked wood! We most owe the association to Shakespeare. As it happens, I heard this pairing with my own ears on Friday night, at a performance of Hamlet starring my friend Kyle McDonald. You hear springe twice in the play. The first time, Ophelia is talking of Hamlet’s protestations of love, and her father, Polonius, says, “Ay, springes to catch woodcocks.” Now, isn’t that a phrase with a crisp flavour? It starts at the lips and tip of the tongue, then moves into tongue-tip affricates, and at the end of this quick consonantal scuffle it hits hard stops at the back of the mouth. The second time is in the final scene, when Laertes says, “Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric; I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery.”
And is springe related to spring? Yes, it is. The cocked wood – that green wood of spring – is a spring made of green wood; it is something that is made to spring, and thus it is named with an old causative formed from the verb spring (just as fell as in fell a tree is a causative from fall). And during the green season of the year, life and greenery spring forth, just as water springs forth from a spring – all of these springs spring from the same source. But the spring of the year and the spring of water are life-giving; not so a springe.
Not so a false spring, either, come to think of it. Right now around where I live, the woods are cocked and ready to spring forth, and indeed birds are chirping and buds sprouting – even though it’s supposed to be the snowy season. If too much of the spring ventures forth into this false spring, it, too, may be caught out and silenced by an unexpected turn of the weather. As it goes for the rest of nature, so, too, can it go for us, in the long term. And when the weather is like this, people may stop and ask whether we have had some effect on that. Are we woodcocks to our own springe?