Too Much Information: W. B. Yeats and Kebabs
September 4, 2012 4 Comments
By Rob Packer
Etymology is generally considered to be one of those unalloyed “good things”: after all, a lot of people like to use it to show how erudite they are (by using words like erudite, for example, when poncy will do). And when you’re growing up, it really is useful to remember that the horizon isn’t vertical. It’s also particularly helpful when learning languages: for example, vocabulary lists really are easier when you realize that a Spanish propuesta or desayuno is really an English proposal or breakfast from a different angle and that Vergangenheit and Zukunft in German really mean time that’s “gone for good” and “to come”. These aides-memoires do have a habit of ending up a little inane, though, and I’ll never forget being told by my school Russian teacher about the similarity between zavtra (tomorrow) and zavtrak (breakfast)—but it did the job and have used it most recently in Kyrgyzstan.
Sometimes, however, etymology sits within a word like a stink bomb, ready to explode at the rustle of a dictionary’s page. Nervous readers should look away now: there is half a chance I’ll ruin one of the English language’s greatest poems.
For anyone who’s left, here goes:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The poem is, of course, ‘The Second Coming’ by W. B. Yeats and is surely proof that while you might have to read it more than once to make sense of it, but you don’t need big words in poetry. Or not many. You might not know what “the widening gyre” is, but it shouldn’t trip you up: you might pass over it, assuming it’s an arcane falconry accoutrement. By the time you get to that stellar third line, all should be forgotten anyway.
Unfortunately, a gyre is really a spiral or vortex and if you’re lucky enough to own a copy of Yeats with notes, you can happily go off on the tangent of Yeats and mysticism (my Oxford edition even includes diagrams or you could listen to this podcast). This is a fascinating topic, but I won’t be going into it here.
What you should not do is wonder if that’s a Greek or Anglo-Saxon root and go to the dictionary to find out—words like gyratory, gyroscope and gyrate should be more than enough of a clue. You will find something like this (from Collins):
ORIGIN: ME: from late L. gyrare, from L. gyrus ‘a ring’, from Gk guros.
So, really, a pretty run-of-the-mill English word that went from Greek to Latin to Late Latin to Middle English, and thence to Yeats. But if you know much about Greek cuisine, you probably know that gyros (γύρος) is the Greek variant of the döner kebab—and yes, it’s called that because you turn it.
So, it’s not always best to know the etymology, as it can leave discordant images of kebabs and Apocalypses “troubling your sight”. If this is you, I’m sorry for bringing you down with me: luckily, the best remedy I know is to just read the whole poem (again). It really is incredible and should, like all of Yeats, be read and re-read. It must also include one of the most terrifying uses of the word “thighs” in the history of English.