Tag Archives: shawm


This word has a sort of soft, shaggy feel to it, like a shag carpet (you can even see the pile of the carpet at the end, with the w and m). It has resonances of names such as Shawn, Shawna, and Shaw, not to mention Shams-e Tabrizi, the man who so inspired the great Sufi poet Rumi, who wrote, among other things,

Listen to the song of the reed,
How it wails with the pain of separation:


The sound of the reed comes from fire, not wind—
What use is one’s life without this fire?

It is the fire of love that brings music to the reed.
It is the ferment of love that gives taste to the wine.

(translation by Jonathan Star)

Ah, the reed. It has such a trenchant sound, so unlike the soft marsh of a word like shawm. Latin for “reed” is calamus. The diminutive form calamellus became Old French chalemie as a name for a particular reed instrument, one rather different from the one Rumi had in mind – Rumi’s reed instrument was the ney, an end-blown flute made of a whole reed. The chalemie, ancestor of the modern oboe, had its origins in the same part of the world – well, Iraq, whereas Rumi was from Iran (Persia) – but it made its sound with a split reed (the pain of separation indeed!) embedded in a wood instrument with a flared bell at the end.

The chalemie became known in English as the shalemuse (among other variations on the name), which over time shortened down to shalm and ultimately shawm.

I’m not shamming you! This chamois shawl of a word names a rather trenchant, even stentorian reed instrument. I’m listening to it being played right now – it’s one of the instruments played by the ensemble Corvus Corax, which I have on the CD player. (If you want a short and distinct sense of the sound of the shawm, try www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wW1YRHtU60 or www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xsy_jX-jvDQ; for more pictures and information, see www.music.iastate.edu/antiqua/renshawm.htm and www.music.iastate.edu/antiqua/mshawm.htm.) In this light, the w looks more like two bells or reeds of shawms, and the m like the fingers playing it.

True, not everyone likes this kind of sound – there will be naysayers. But I favour the fire of love, such as I find in women, wine, and shawm! And I have all three: my reed-thin, charming and beautiful wife, my sounds of the shawm on CD, and, in the refrigerator, a bottle of Calamus Gewürztraminer 2008 from the Niagara peninsula.