The work of word country, the careful crop-tending, extracting the fruits of the fertile soil of language, is not all large-scale operations for production in the millions or myriads or even thousands. Off in little patches here and there, small enclosures, window gardens and dooryards and suburban corners and rural nooks, dedicated individuals cultivate heirloom words, lexemes odd and quaint – to our eyes – but bearing flavours that make the tongue tingle afresh, ways of seeing and saying and hearing that many a logophile pines for.
Consider this one here: she has a little plot in which she keeps alive, for her enjoyment and in the hopes of repropagation, a few quaint and curious fruits of the English tongue, now found – when at all – in places peripheral and rural and mainly in books that already have the dusty-honey smell of aging paper. Today she has just added a new word, chelp, to the plot, next to her cherished crop of pingle.
Pingle! Such a fantastic fruit! It has conflicting tastes, of tingly-scented pines and kindling in inglenooks and of pinguid piglets and processed potato chips (Pringles, to be precise) and perhaps a soft pickle. Is pingle one word? Two? Three? Four? Five? When you taste it on your tongue, do you know what its place in your menu will be? It is a noun – it is three nouns: one is a struggle; one is a small enclosed piece of land; one is a small, long-handled pan or pot – and it is a verb, no, two verbs: one, used by Scots, is for exerting, struggling, contending; the other, used by Englishmen, is for picking at one’s food. So has it ever been, if you ask a Scot.
What do you do when you have a crop of words that look the same but have such different senses? They cleave together with the form; would you cleave them apart? The source is uncertain and may be multiple, but the sound and letters are all the same; drop it one place and it carries one savour, drop it another and it carries another. And it has such a hearty feel on the tongue – the old-home crisp pop of aspirated /p/, a quick high front vowel, then it sticks softly in the back, hardens next, and rolls off the tip of the tongue in a liquid syllable.
Our gardener loves this taste. She faces the challenge of keeping the word alive: it is a struggle, an exertion, a contention with nature in her little gated patch. If it bears fruit, it may be handed over to a careful cook who will give it a delicate turn in a little long-handled pan and serve it to give a special relish to a plate of language, only hoping that the diner will not pick at it and leave half behind. Oh, to pingle this pingle of pingle in her pingle, that it may pass through the pingle and not be pingled!
Thank you to Kathleen Lynch, word gardener, for mentioning pingle yesterday.