In Aberdeen, where I once had been, there was the prettiest tureen you ever had seen. It was green and had a picture of the queen. Its owner had once used it to hold poteen, but now, as parent of a tween, preferred to use it to hold mangosteens. Alas, what its owner had not foreseen was the effect that pre-teen could have on the tureen. She was preening in some velveteen when she bumped into a screen and careened into the tureen – and, surely as a ball-peen hammer, smashed the tureen to smithereens. And its poor owner was left to keen and vent his spleen on what might have been.

English can be like that tureen sometimes, entropic, shattering into shards and sherds. But sometimes things converge rather than diverge. Imagine as many smithereens as you’ve ever seen all gathering together and, if not merging to make a never-before-existing pot, at least all pointing the same way. Some words converge in form, such as cleave and cleave (opposites in sense, formerly spelled differently and from different sources), and sometimes part of a word does: we see this in English names ending in -ell and -ett, and we see it in word endings such as -een.

In smithereens, which is pretty much always in the plural – imagine reading “He held in his hand a smithereen of the pot”: conceivable, but funny, no? – the -een is the same as in Colleen, poteen, shebeen, and a few other words borrowed from Irish Gaelic: it represents the -ín diminutive suffix. The smither has nothing to do with smiths; it’s from smiodar, ‘fragment’. So smithereens are small fragments. You are unlikely to break a tureen into just seventeen smithereens; more like it will be umpteen, or perhaps hundreds. And you will probably smash it rather than just break it if the result is smithereens. (And now, tell me, doesn’t the sound of “een” suggest the pieces scattering at high speed? It has the high pitch of [i], with the associations of smallness and speed, and the sustain of the final nasal [n].)

The various other -eens are from all sorts of sources: seen and been use an -n-based past tense (see > seen; be > been); tureen comes from terrine with its derivative -ine suffix coming from Latin -inus; all the -teen words relate to ten (well, velveteen doesn’t, it traces to -ine again); the various one-syllable words (queen, green, preen, spleen) come from their own individual etymologies – and keen has two sources and meanings converging on one form, the ‘sharp’ one coming from Germanic and the ‘weep’ one coming from Irish Gaelic again (but not related to the diminutive – indeed, the modern spelling is caoin, still sounding like English “keen”). What we have in the end is a rhyme with just a bit of reason. Or multiple reasons coming together, little bit by little bit.

So language comes together, e’en as it breaks apart. Perhaps we should call this convergence of smithereens eentropy.

2 responses to “smithereens

  1. “[T]he prettiest tureen you ever had seen” reminded me of those Torontonians, Moxy Fruvous. Their song “The Present Tense Tureen” careens around many such rhyme schemes:

    Circumstances eat themselves
    The present tense has been
    Fill the fancy bowl up
    At the present tense tureen.

    I once had a girl, she lived in the past
    It was clear that relationship wouldn’t last
    It was clear from the way she had to sleep south
    It was clear from the lines around her mouth
    So I went for a walk in the ravine
    I came upon an unbelievable scene
    In a tiny creek there’s a tiny boat
    With a tiny man in a tiny coat
    I said “Hey man, do you think you can help?”
    He said “Of course I can – I’m an elf
    We’re not just fictional device
    We sail ravines and give advice”
    I said “My baby is what it’s about”
    He cried “Helms a-lee, boy, I’m comin’ about
    Don’t fill me in on right or wrong
    Take these ropes and sing this song”

    Circumstances eat themselves
    The present tense has been
    Fill the fancy bowl up
    At the present tense tureen.

    His eyes were afire, he lit up a coal
    Handed me a ladle and a little white bowl
    Put the pot on the fire, he opened a book
    And said “sit down, the thing’s gotta cook”
    “That’s the loveliest pot I’ve ever seen”
    He said “it’s not a pot, it’s a tureen
    And what’s inside will make you well
    So ring this little dinner bell”
    Then he giggled in french – that’s what he did
    Like a kid at Christmas, as he opened the lid
    “Help yourself” he beamed with pride
    But there was no sweet soup inside.
    Silence fell on the cooling night
    I thought I better fake it just to be polite
    Smallest friend, biggest moon
    Empty bowl, empty spoon.

    Circumstances eat themselves
    The present tense has been
    Fill the fancy bowl up
    At the present tense tureen.

    Circumstances eat themselves
    The present tense has been
    Fill the fancy bowl up
    At the present tense tureen.

  2. A delightful poem! You have a gift, AND it’s National Poetry Month (April) in the U.S.

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