Having just spent some time in Scotland, encountering Scots accents and language, and having read Kathleen Jamie’s book Findings while on my trip, and having visited castles and a distillery (even though malt whisky is not something I drink), I find myself thinking again about words. In particular, specialized words–those used by the ancient crafts such as beer-making, by vintners and distillers, weavers, farmers, and builders of defenses, ships, and of cathedrals, architectural terms and words specific to a trade: jargon.


Barley. Glengoyne Distillery, not far from Glasgow.

Jargon, the word itself, comes from the French. As per the Online Etymology Dictionary:

jargon (n.) Look up jargon at Dictionary.commid-14c., “unintelligible talk, gibberish; chattering, jabbering,” from Old French jargon “a chattering” (of birds), also “language, speech,” especially “idle talk; thieves’ Latin” (12c.). Ultimately of echoic origin (compare Latin garrire “to chatter”).

From 1640s as “mixed speech, pigin;” 1650s as “phraseology peculiar to a sect or profession,” hence “mode of speech full of unfamiliar terms.” Middle English also had it as a verb, jargounen “to chatter” (late 14c.), from French.

One of the things I like best about taking tours of and reading books about distilleries or castles and the like is the chance to savor those unusual and often strangely lovely-sounding special terms. The lyne arm. The tun. The potstill, the draff, the spirit safe. Wort and wormtub.

And there’s the donjon, the voussoir, the queen-post, the feretory…in addition to all those buttresses and gargoyles and portcullises. Not to mention the terms, many of them archaic, associated with the making of tapestries and the cooking of meals and the husbandry of sheep or falcons or cattle.


Or the laying of stones for roads or masonry walls, for the engineering of moats and the design of crenellated defenses. So many words, and only highly specialized historians know them today; whereas once, the mostly illiterate men and women who did the work used the language of their trades.

It’s still true today–perhaps more than ever–that jargon is used among the people in a given industry, computer tech or realty or politics. I suppose those words will as surely fall out of use, or evolve in their meanings, and perhaps more rapidly than the jargon of yore.

Obscure terms, highly specialized in their function as means of communication. Sometimes, quite beautiful to know.



Two springs

I left the budding springtime in eastern Pennsylvania to visit Glasgow, Scotland for six days. Springtime along the north Atlantic was full of gorse blooms, primroses, daffodils beginning to fade (though there were several hillside hosts of golden daffodils worthy of Wordsworthian apostrophe), early tulips, and wildflowers alongside lakes, streams, and rivers, even in the city.

The days are longer than they are at my latitude, and the diurnal length has an effect on many of the bloom times. I saw few saucer magnolias–too windy, too chilly–but there were stellata magnolias and, to my surprise, camellias apparently thrive in Glasgow as long as they are planted in a sheltered area.

I spent a fine Saturday afternoon at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens, which are lovely. The greenhouses there have an excellent collection of carnivorous plants: sundews from South Africa, pitcher plants from North America.

The entire span of days I visited, the weather was sunny. Glaswegians took advantage of the unusual break in the weather and were out in droves, picnicking at the Botanic Gardens Saturday and–on Easter Sunday–wandering Loch Lomond’s shores.

Like many of the rivers, canals, and lakes in the region, Loch Lomond is frequented by swans. It is nesting season, and I was thrilled to find cobs patrolling the waters and the female swans draped elegantly over their large nests. I didn’t see any cygnets, though I saw some ducks and ducklings.

10247279_10203757614005125_5675182446853711106_nMany years ago, my first book of poetry was a collaborative chapbook with my dear friend David Dunn. The book is listed on my Books page, but it is out of print. The title is The Swan King.

I returned home Monday, where my yard is resplendent with daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, magnolia, forsythia, and a zillion tufts of wild garlic (onion grass, we used to call it) punctuating the green grass of the lawn.

But lovely as my view was this morning, I wish I could have spent longer at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs…

Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond