Monday, 14 January 2013

Oncethmus and Other Oddities

Some recent articles in the British press, about a government-backed drive to encourage children to learn poetry by heart, reminded me of my schooldays. For each English or Bengali exam, we had to memorise at least five poems, many of which were quite long, or hundreds of years old. On top of that, our teachers insisted – and this strikes me as somewhat unreasonable when I think about it now – that in the exam we reproduce the poem with original punctuation (marks would be deducted for, say, using a dash where the poet had put a semi-colon). It did not help that most poems had seemingly random punctuation, almost as if the poet first wrote up the whole poem, and then thought “Right, what mark of punctuation shall I put at the end of this line?”

Many of us therefore preferred to memorise the punctuation separately, almost like a different, parallel poem. The first verse of The Solitary Reaper, for instance, is the charmingly mellifluous “comma, exclamation, semi-colon, exclamation, comma, semi-colon, nothing, stop.” And who is to say that this is any less poetic than Behold her, single in the field etc.?


When I was a child, from reading books I derived certain stereotypical ideas of how people from different countries spoke. The English spoke like Psmith; Americans spoke like the Lone Ranger. Russians were always hatching intrigues in smoky train stations and wrestling with terrible moral dilemmas.

Most of these stereotypes I have now let go of, but when they are conformed to, there is still a moment when I am secretly pleased and I think, “Ah, this is how it should be.” The Dombai zorb ball incident, an otherwise tragic mishap, had such a moment. The Guardian describes it thus:
[The zorb ball] then hurtles leftwards down a ravine. Onlookers watch in horror, one asking: "What's down there?" A voice replies: "Nothing. Catastrophe."
“Nothing. Catastrophe.” Tolstoy would have been proud of that.


The other day we were playing Balderdash, and one of the words picked was oncethmus, which means ‘braying’. Later we were discussing possible uses of the word, and Nirmalya’s suggestion was the most popular: “Maybe in the title of a sequel to Silence of the Lambs.”

The same evening, shortly after an intense game of Snatch, the Quaker walked over to the sofa and his eyes alighted on an open page of our vintage cookbook. “Check this out guys, a cooking game!” he exclaimed, only to realise that the chapter in question was about cooking game.

I am thankful, especially in winter, that I know several people in London who like to play board games.