“‘I ha’ paid her to keep awa’ fra’ me. These five year I ha’ paid her. I ha’ gotten decent fewtrils about me agen. I ha’ lived hard and sad, but not ashamed and fearfo’ a’ the minnits o’ my life.’”
That’s from Hard Times, by Charles Dickens. And the obvious question is…
Is that some sense of the future details? Or a few things that give nice scents to your nostrils? Is it that he’s managed to get a few thrills, even if cheap ones? Or is it some flowery tendrils? This word has that accordion-file w in the middle of it and I really want to dive my hand into it to find some little thing that will tell me what sense it holds.
I don’t have to, though. I can just look in that little (no, large) shop of lexical geegaws in which I found it: the Oxford English Dictionary. Or I can pick up my massive Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, which also has it. Webster tells me it’s ‘odds and ends’ or ‘trifles’. But I like Oxford’s definition better, which comes from a 1763 quote: ‘little things’. (Or, yes, ‘trifles’; Oxford allows that too.)
Life is a sort of packing exercise. First you get the big things in, home, food, you know. Big pieces of furniture. Essentials, the anchor tenants of your life. Then you add the medium-sized things: more chairs, some kitchen appliances, various necessaries. What lets you live a functioning existence without having to run out or go wanting. But you are not comfortable until you have the little things.
Take a big box and put in big rocks. OK, you have a box of rocks, but will you rest on it? Not for the sake of your back. Add some middle-sized rocks. Fill in the space with pebbles. Better now? Now you can sit on it if you must. But wait: pour in sand, those millions of little grains. Now you can lie back, perhaps.
But in the structures of our lives, we don’t need millions of little things. We just need a few. A few thrills. Just a little bit of an eye to the future details. A few pleasant passing scents to make passable sense to our nostrils. A few flowers to take root in our hearts. Fewtrils.
No one’s quote sure where fewtrils comes from. Oxford hints that there may be a connection to fattrels, ‘ribbon-ends’, from French fatraille ‘trash, trumpery, things of no value’.
But those little things of no value… how often we value them the most! Everyone deserves a few thrills and some fewtrils. Not too many – just a few – but they are the trills in the songs of our lives.