Today’s Favourite Word: Emeute

Reading & Writing, The Arts

There should be a word for thinking a word means something it doesn’t; for a long time I thought an emeute was a cudgel. It’s not, it’s an uprising. Although the word is French, it slipped into the English language because of WS Gilbert, who used it in the policemen’s chorus in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. He needed it to rhyme with ‘boots’.

A lot of deliciously arcane and obscure words come from old G&S plays, usually pressed into service because Gilbert’s linguistic density requires so many rhymes in his ‘list’ songs – so we have ‘animalculus’ (a very tiny animal) to rhyme with ‘differential calculus’ and ‘Babylonic cuneiform’ to rhyme with ‘Caractacus’s uniform’. This reaches levels of insanity in a verse from the Major General’s song that reads;

I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s;
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

With the exception of ‘Pinafore’, Mikado’ and ‘Pirates’ Gilbert & Sullivan is an obscure taste now, and yet every once in a while a production comes along that freshen them up and makes them intelligible again. It’s said that ‘Satire is what closes on Saturday night’, but the G&S satires (which is primarily what they are) made me think about vocabulary from an early age.

11 comments on “Today’s Favourite Word: Emeute”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Last para/last line. Yes, exactly, admin.
    My mother had four or five G&S operettas on His Master’s Voice – red label – 78s. Heavy! She used to stack some on the spindle and then do housework. I learned that vocabulary was fun that way – and out-worded the kids in the neighborhood, although that could be dangerous as I quickly found. You had to listen hard and fast to catch and keep up with the G&S patter.
    We often looked words up after and then replayed the record. It was great fun. Great way to learn. Have always loved the reference to the croaking chorus from the Frogs and the sexy elbow that – dang the sweet creature’s name keeps speeding through the head, but doesn’t stick. Like a particle trail throgh a cloud chamber. Anyway, great post. Turning over some compost this morning in the back of the brain. There her nake goes through again. Hate that.

  2. Andrea Yang says:

    Just wonder, you clearly do lots of research for your books, do you primarily use the internet these days or do you rely more on libraries, archives and old book stores? Or do you do something else entirely?

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    In one ear and caught before it exited: Yum-Yum. That’s her name, I think. Best looking elbow in the East.

  4. John Howard says:

    Hadn’t heard the line about ‘Satire is what closes on Saturday night.’ Is ‘Beyond the Fringe’ the exception that proves the rule. As for a more gentle satire and one that uses language a little bit in the vein of Gilbert is the work of Flanders and Swann. I grew up with both of the records and have had to grab from the hugely modern itunes some of the Flanders and Swann tunes to liven up the ipod. Not forgetting of course the slightly more cutting satire of ‘The Master’ who I notice you have quoted in the past.

  5. John Howard says:

    Oh sorry, will try to work emuete into the conversation at some stage this week.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Flanders and Swann: ‘Mud, mud, glorious mud!’ and ‘Twas on a Monday morning the gasman came to call.’
    Sorry, Yum Yum is not the lady with the gorgeous elbow. That honour goes to Katisha, the contralto promised to Nanki Poo, the son of the Mikado. Yum Yum is one of the trio of ‘little maids from school’. I would still like to play Katisha because she has one of the great entrances in musical theatre.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and I, too, have erred in that she had a beautiful shoulder blade.

  8. admin says:

    A note to Andrea – The answer is all of the things you mentioned, plus talking to people, still the best source of information.

  9. Alan G says:

    It is funny how sometimes things come in batches. I had never heard of Flanders and Swann until a week ago and now I seem to be bumping into them almost daily.

    Then again – perhaps they were there all along and I only just notice them now.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    (in translation) emuete is a euphemism for revolt. People who take part in an emuete are emuetiers. Does this dignify protesters such as our casserolers or casseroliers (must be bilingual)too much? I found it on-line but not in my lovely Colliers dictionary. This is a bizarre word with counter intuitive spelling. There is an accent on the first E but not the second if you’re using it in French it seems.

  11. John Howard says:

    Hi Alan, hope you are enjoying Flanders & Swann.

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