The Word-Historical Moment in Contemporary Poetry: On Walter Ancarrow’s “Etymologies”

Camille Ralphs explores the use of etymology in contempory poetry, especially through the lens of Walter Ancarrow’s “Etymologies.”

By Camille RalphsJuly 16, 2023

The Word-Historical Moment in Contemporary Poetry: On Walter Ancarrow’s “Etymologies”

Etymologies by Walter Ancarrow. Omnidawn. 71 pages.

ACCORDING TO David-Antoine Williams, in his 2020 book The Life of Words: Etymology and Modern Poetry, we live in an “age of language science.” And this war chest and treasury of corpus linguistics, live thesauri, and machine translations, this lapidary or dilapidated Babel of searchable online texts and libraries, this climacteric of alleged “world history,” has pushed and helped contemporary poets to engage with etymology, or the roots and histories of words, to an astonishing extent, especially in English—though their engagement is part of a long tradition.

As early as 1599, well before the time of gappy, guessy, but occasionally truthful dictionaries such as Nathan Bailey’s (1721) and Samuel Johnson’s (1755), Samuel Daniel wrote, regarding English: “And who (in Time) knows whither we may vent / The Treasure of our Tongue? To what Strange Shores / This Gain of our best Glory shall be sent, / T’enrich unknowing Nations with our Stores?” Later, the 19th century’s “golden age” of philology welcomed not only Webster’s dictionary (1828) and James Murray’s Oxford English Dictionary (1884) but also Walter William Skeat’s etymological dictionary of 1879–82—an influence on Gerard Manley Hopkins. The late 20th century’s exacting, more mechanical, and data-rich developments alleged that English has the largest logged vocabulary of any language: it is a condominium of two major etymological groups, the Germanic or Teutonic tongues and the Romance languages, and, as John Lennard notes, it has stolen “words from every language its speakers hear.” “For poets [this] all makes the language at once sweetshop and minefield,” Lennard observes. Twentieth-century poets such as Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, and (into the present century) Paul Muldoon were deeply influenced by English etymology, and helped to lay the groundwork for what has followed.

Two main modes of engagement characterize the use of etymology in contemporary Anglophone poetry (though poets have more uses for it, as for all their tools, than can be reasonably summarized). Often they appear in tandem. The first is an ecocritical-religious response—an attempt to recover a harmless, Edenic linguistic world. This links, in short, environmental conflagration and broader human error with the fall of language from its ostensibly perfect, universal origins. In Hill’s words, “The history of the creation and the debasement of words is a paradigm of the loss of the kingdom of innocence and original justice.” Here etymology is either doted on or shown to be unstable, depending on the poet.

The second has lately taken precedence as postcolonial poetry has established itself in the international mainstream. Here, etymology is invoked, provoked, or revoked to emphasize the vitality of postcolonial or multicultural experience via a reinterpretation or subversion of the colonizers’ or dominant culture’s language (in English’s case, there are only too many justifications for such efforts). George Lamming once announced his wish to “christen Language afresh” and break free from “Prospero’s old myth.” Poets do this either by reworking currently prevailing languages and mores, making space from the inside out (see, for instance, Derek Walcott’s work, steeped in the historic poetries of Europe but incorporating St. Lucian inflections and rhythms), or by applying alternative verbal and formal approaches from the outside in (see Kamau Brathwaite’s writing in English from a more Afrocentric, oral perspective). They might highlight English words’ debts to other languages, or draw attention to how English has affected other tongues, or both.

In whichever case, the same, recognizable methods for employing etymology come into play. Inspired by William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), David-Antoine Williams describes “seven types of etymological ambiguity” by which poets destabilize the present by reintroducing the past or a parallel but subdued present. His breakdown of these methods is a great resource, albeit a sometimes jumbled one; a recent collection of poems, Walter Ancarrow’s appositely titled Etymologies, contains examples of each method, though they occur with less self-consciousness elsewhere. (I should note that Ancarrow’s poems are frequently more like ideas for poems, but as evidence of this wider poetic moment, they are worth examining.)

The first types, weak and strong polysemy, are the subtlest and rarest today, demanding a strong and intuitive knowledge of diction from both poet and reader. In weak polysemy, we spot submerged amicable meanings of two words or phrases in a poem—but only if we know the etymology of one of them. Often, it goes unnoticed, or looks accidental, like this usage in Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (1966): “Crucibles pour / sanded ingots,” he writes after mentioning the Lindisfarne Gospels, a reference that alerts those in the know to the “crux,” or cross, present in “crucible.” (Our contemporary Vahni Anthony Capildeo, who once worked as a researcher for the OED, gives a strong version with “from excruciated to crossed” in their poem “Past Inhabitant.”) Over the course of a poem, weak polysemy can shadow or intimate an overall mood. In Ancarrow’s poem on the Tagalog origins of “boondocks,” a city’s “depths harbored barbarian ships and argots, while the subway map to get there was clear only to those fluent in color-speak.” In the context of this sentence, both “barbarian” (from the chant bar bar bar, with which noise the ancient Greeks imitated foreigners—as Solmaz Sharif writes in one of her “Dear Aleph” poems) and “fluent” (from Latin fluere, “to flow”) subtly take on their historical meanings, deepening and strengthening the sentence’s semantic field.

In strong polysemy, Williams writes, “historical links between two words are asserted in order for them to assume aspects of each other.” This type, along with weaker polysemy, is a favorite of Heaney and, more recently (and with a Walcottian subversiveness), of Zaffar Kunial (“[England] is full of them. […] Hedges. […] Thorned blank verse, strange runes, folioed text”—here, “thorned” refers to both vegetal thorns and the Old English figure thorn (þ), and “folioed” recalls both books such as Shakespeare’s First Folio and the word’s root in the Latin for “leaf,” from which we derive “foliage”). Among Ancarrow’s shorter poems is another model, so clear as to not need explication: “electric from Latin electrum from Greek electron, ‘amber’; her necklace a slow bug zapper.”

The third of Williams’s types is often seen in contemporary poetry. Metonymy, in which a word’s etymology takes the real thing’s or the current understanding’s place, is “a trope of return and recovery” (this is especially true of “place name” poems such as Heaney’s Gaelic “Broagh”). See, for instance, some of Ocean Vuong’s “Notebook Fragments”: “In Vietnamese, the word for grenade is ‘bom,’ from the French / ‘pomme,’ / meaning ‘apple.’ // Or was it American for ‘bomb’?”; “Eggplant = cà pháo = ‘grenade tomato.’ Thus nourishment defined by extinction.” What’s recovered here is not the pure untouched Edenic apple but the identity of the bringer of error, of violence. Similarly, Aria Aber’s “I Wake Up Curled Up in a C. D. Wright Poem” observes that a grenade’s shape is “much like the fruit they named it after, / pomegranate, from Latin pomum granatum / (apple with many seeds), […] fruit of the dead, or of fertility, depending / on whose sustenance you listen to.” (The emphasis that line break gives to “depending” causes that word too to find its historical meaning: “hanging on.”) This type is more comic for Ancarrow: the German “pumpernickel” draws out “to ‘pass gas’” (pumpern) and “goblin” (Nicek), which together lead to a marching band of flatulent alternatives, including “ass kraken,” “Will-o’-the-Whiff,” and “the Vegetable Lamb of Fartary.”

Etymological metaphor, in which “the current sense and the etymological sense are conveyed simultaneously within a construct of comparison or equivalence,” is another intellectually trying type Williams outlines. But it has its purveyors. Take, for instance, the intensely (and multilingually) etymologically metaphorical work of the Russian American poet Eugene Ostashevsky, whose Feeling Sonnets (2022) see themselves as fieldwork in linguistics and the fluctuations of communication and emotion. “The soul is silly. Die Seele ist dumm. // It is silly because it does not know how to speak. Sie ist dumm, weil sie nicht sprechen kann,” he writes in “Казнь = Песнь” (“Execution/Decimation = Song”), where the use of the German dumm highlights the etymology of the English “dumb,” meaning either speechless or silly, reemphasizing the purpose of the sequence. Ancarrow’s example comments on the evolutions of the Latin diabolus into “devil”: “‘They speak in tongues,’ said the monoglot Evangelical.” Here, “tongues” predicts the “glot” (from Greek glotta, “tongue”) in the “monoglot” hypocrite; glossolalia, of course, is speaking in tongues, something once associated more with diabolical possession than evangelical passion.

Ostashevsky’s poem also contains an etymological hinge, which (in Williams’s words) “serves to turn the thought of the poem from one frame to another.” In “Казнь = Песнь,” Ostashevsky writes that the “meaning of ‘german’ in English is ‘closely related.’ Englisch heißt Englisch, weil es eng mit Deutsch verwandt ist.” (The second part of this quotation translates as “‘English’ means ‘English’ because it is closely related to German.”) This prepares the ground for “This endows German with a light air of duplicity” and “Often you write das Leid [the sorrow] but read das Lied [the song].” Ancarrow, meanwhile, centers an entire poem on a creaking hinge: someone “perceiving paradise” begins “at pairi-, to go around.” Later, the poem slams itself shut, ejecting the reader from Eden: “Not because paradise is everlasting but that it ends / in -diz, the act of building a wall.”

Williams’s two remaining types, both common in contemporary work and sometimes similar in outcome, are etymological analogy, “whereby relations or associations in the etymological language are seen to reflect relations or associations in the object of observation,” and allegory, “in which the processes of historical semantic change themselves are understood as representative or indicative of other kinds of change.” Anne Carson’s “Dave’s, Lake Michigan, Early June” is given as exemplary of an analogy by Williams, for how it forms a ring of links through words like “lake” but not “lake,” “thinking around” the word that is itself not etymologized, as the speaker walks around the lake. And comparably, Ancarrow reflects on “Lake Chad,” which a pilgrim might see as “a double-mirage, for its name comes from Kanuri tsade, ‘lake.’” Since etymology itself is his object of observation, all of his poems are analogies, reflexive to a large extent. But Ancarrow’s lake piece even focuses directly on the split between, or dissolution of the split between, definition and the thing defined: “On the edge of this Lake Lake […] he stands with his body twinned in the water, and wonders which of him is word and which object.”

Both analogy and allegory find lyric form and concrete-poetic form throughout Ancarrow’s book: “dhowtus and then dauþus and then deaþ and then death and then.” That language change is representative of wider change is more plainly articulated, though, in Valzhyna Mort’s “Nocturne for a Moving Train,” which is almost a secular interpretation of Hill’s prose statement. “Radiation, an etymology of soil // directed into the future,” she writes, “prepared / a thesis on the new origins of old roots / on secret, disfiguring missions of misspellings, / on the shocking betrayal of apples, / on the uncompromised loyalty of cesium.” (See also Mary Jean Chan’s more rudimentary, but similarly sedimentary, “Wish”: “my languages are like roots / gnarled in soil, one and indivisible / except the world divides me endlessly.”)

Mort’s “disfiguring missions of misspellings” leads me to suggest an eighth type—a recent development, although one seen in prototype in the work of poets like Muldoon. “Lexically speaking,” writes Williams, “etymology is the great confuser […] in Muldoon’s work, where things become fused in the common or confounded roots.” In “Saint Joan,” for instance, Muldoon’s speaker asks: “Paul? Was it you put the pol in polygamy / or was it somebody else?” This kind of solecism seems ironic, tongue-in-cheek, but today’s examples often have hard points to make. Maya C. Popa’s recent book Wound Is the Origin of Wonder contains several poems with that same title, which attempt to trace how any private history of pain can contribute to wider inter-/disconnection, but which never settle into any kind of certainty. The collection opens with an epigraph: “Wonder, from the Old English wundor, is thought to be a cognate with the German wunde or wound.” That “thought to be” is important. Cognates share an ancestor, but this is sometimes hard to find in evidence, and may turn out to be imagined; in any case, a cognate is decidedly not an origin. A patent first and universal language is a “fiction,” “made by looking,” as one of the poems suggests—just as the sources of issues in relationships can be determined or imposed in retrospect. Words, like the environment in which they were created, are so mutable and so itinerant that it is foolish to believe that they are really rooted anywhere, or that their influence is clear-cut or unidirectional.

Etymological solecism, as a strategy, is two-pronged: it either points out the impossibility of tracing roots in any “uncorrupted” way, or states the inaccessibility of different origins to one another—in particular, a colonizer’s ignorance regarding the languages and customs of the onetime colonized. There is a third expression of this type, involving purposeful misspellings, either to transgress the boundaries of orthodox orthography as an analogy for those of the wider world, as in Jos Charles’s trans-medievalish collection feeld (2018), or to combine all these ideas and to embrace the faults and flaws of humans and our language, insofar as such an embrace is possible.

By now the reader of this essay will have clocked word histories’ prevalence in poetry today. (They might have also noted these ideas’ valency in wider culture: see the popularity of etymologists on Twitter, the success of podcasts such as Something Rhymes with Purple, and so on.) Today’s poetic landscape can seem friable, fragmented, and too often warring with itself, unable to decide which of its chief concerns—the ecocritical, the postcolonial or multicultural, the song for its own sake—should be most salient. But underneath that landscape are the firm and yielding schist and scrolling roots of etymology, which poets from all quarters are approaching with the same tools.


Some of the ideas discussed in this essay developed from a presentation, “Wor(l)d Histories: Excavating language change through poetry,” given at the University of Bristol in July 2019.


Camille Ralphs is poetry editor at The Times Literary Supplement. Her first full collection of poems, After You Were, I Am, will be published by Faber in 2024.

LARB Contributor

Camille Ralphs’s first full collection of poems, After You Were, I Am, will be published by Faber in 2024. She is the author of three pamphlets, Malkin: An ellegy in 14 spels (The Emma Press, 2015; short-listed for the Michael Marks Award), Uplifts & Chains (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2020) and Daydream College for Bards (Guillemot Press, forthcoming 2023); writes the Averse Miscellany column for Poetry London; and conducts the “Poem’s Apprentice” interview series for Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal. She is poetry editor at The Times Literary Supplement.


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