Daily Archives: January 22, 2016


If you happen to wander into the be– section of the Oxford English Dictionary, you bump into all sort of verbs and adjectives: becalm, befuddle, beclap, bechance, becloud, bedaub, bebop, bechamel, oops, those last two aren’t made with the be– prefix, but the list goes on – in fact, the entry for be– (prefix) has 558 sub-entries. That’s 558 words other than the ones with their own separate entries starting with this prefix that signifies a becoming or imposition or “from side to side (within a space), to and fro, in all directions, in all ways, in or through all its parts, thoroughly.” Think of the poor lexicographer. The very thought has me trembling. I think I would end up bebunged like a barrel.

A barrel? No, no, not a barrel. A clavichord.

If behatted and bewigged mean bedecked with a hat and a wig, bebunged must mean having a bung, right? Or somehow affected by a bung?

Nope. There is no alcoholic delirium tremens in bebung. But there are tremors. Of the hand. Deliberate ones. And there is no bung, really. There is beb and there is ung.

Unlike the words around it, this word is a loan from German. And in German, –ung is a non-forming suffix similar to the gerundive –ing in English. The German verb beben means ‘tremble’; bebung – said /ˈbeɪbʊŋ/ (like “babe oong”) – means ‘trembling’. But not just any trembling.

I remember one time, when I was in university, one of my friends – can’t remember which, but given how my life was at the University of Calgary I should probably really put “friends” in scare quotes or just replace it with “people I associated with who variously tolerated and scorned me” – was playing something on the piano (probably with one hand) and, on sustained notes, shook the hand over the fingertip like a violinist does when playing tremolo. I didn’t say anything then, but I thought, “That doesn’t do a damn thing to the sound. Does it?”

The answer is no, it doesn’t. Once you’ve struck the piano key, the hammer has bounced off the string and the only way you can make the sound change with the key is to hit it hard enough to make the hammer bounce off the string again. Titillate the key all you want, you will only be bending your digit. But guess what: It’s different with a clavichord.

What is a clavichord? An instrument that sounds rather like a harpsichord but works a bit more like a piano. But it makes its sound by striking the string from below with a metal point that stays in contact with the string, and if you waver the finger on the key up and down – not sideways – it can vary the tension on the string to produce a tremolo effect. A tremor. A bebung. Here, watch:

The sound is about as unsteady as a somewhat be-bunged drinker. But of course be-bunged is not in the dictionary. You still understood what I meant, though, didn’t you?

So you can’t make bebung on a piano. Except that you can do something that is also called bebung: you can just tap the key a few more times to make repeated strikes of the string to extend the sound or produce a vaguely similar effect. Well, similar in the same way as cicada sounds like the sound a cicada makes. But it might be better for bebop.