By the time I had finished my last posting, the word “champing” was echoing in my head. I was saddened by the news that usage of the word has nearly disappeared except in this one context. Not a major human tragedy, true. But the language is diminished by the loss of any colorful expression. What I want to say now is that, in those hours after posting, I began listening, hearing a phrase in my head. Soon it became a whole stanza, then several stanzas. This was not a new poem or song coming through on God’s Radio, as I think Anne Lamott calls those moments when we get a special muse-assist. This was an old poem titled, The Listeners, by Walter de la Mare. I had had to memorize it. In 8th grade.
I don’t mind telling you that’s more than fifty years ago, and that in all the intervening years, I haven’t read or heard the poem even once. It is not one that is currently in vogue (or anywhere else). I’ll post a link here.
Notice, first of all: the narrative is wonderful. Here is a scene that is mostly left unexplained, mysterious. “Tell them I came.” (Tell whom?) “That I kept my word.” (How? About what?) The listeners may be witnesses, but they are not talking. They only listen. And who are they?
The use of sound in this poem is also wonderful—the kind of alliteration these days used in rap sometimes, but not many other places. In Standard English it sounds a little dated, I think. But listen: “. . . the forest’s ferny floor.” “leaf-fringed sill/Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes. . . .” and best of all, “how the silence surged softly backward/when the plunging hoofs were gone.” That last line is brilliant. The sense of closure in the poem is partly dramatic—the Traveler, whoever he was, has departed. But without the alliteration measuring the tide-like encroachment of silence, which puts us in the place of the Listeners rather than with “that voice from the world of men,” we would not feel the moment as de la Mare wanted. Magical.
Clearly the reason my brain found its way back to this poem in the first place is there in the third line: “While his horse in the silence champed the grasses. . ..” Yup. That poor, nearly archaic word, “champing.” That was the key. And not used in the expression I wrote about last time.
I know that memory is very closely connected to our sense of smell. When I smell roses, I am transported to a back yard in Menlo Park , CA where as a young man I took care of a family’s landscaping for four years. Language can also be a trigger. A word—all language—connects us to many things in many ways: ideas, emotions and concepts, of course, and also to memory. When a word gets lost, doorways close. I nearly lost this poem. But once I began listening, noticing that single word in my ear, I was able to recite from memory nearly the whole poem, more than fifty years later.
Please, share the poem. And if you are inclined, read it aloud. Read it to someone. It will reward you. Be a “listener” yourself. Recognize and treasure those words that lead you back or on, or wherever.
Okay, so I held the fort for “hold the fort” last week. Victory. This past weekend, my sweetheart said, as she often does, she was “chomping at the bit” to do something. And as I always do, though not always out loud, I muttered, “champing.” “What?” she asked. “Champing at the bit. That’s the correct expression.” She gave me the look, which she often does at times like these.
See, a few years ago I was taking an online survey about my habits of mind, and, the preceding paragraph notwithstanding (and the word “notwithstanding” notwithstanding), because I’m really not a fussbudget, I’m not a grammar and usage Nazi, I answered to indicate that language meant relatively little to me, at least in terms of correctness. Jean Marie scoffed. I think she actually laughed out loud. And now, years later, whenever I do something like pointing out “champing” vs. “chomping,” she gets to say, “but language means nothing to you.” And it comes with a look.
We laugh about this. I know when I’m properly busted. But I also hold onto my beliefs about the value of old idioms. They often come from a time long gone, when objects, tools, whatever, which were common then have now ceased to exist. Sometimes that renders the idiom obsolete, silly. “Give you a ring” is teetering on the brink, because most phones don’t ring anymore (although mine does) and anyone younger than about 47 seems to text, email or message in some other fashion. And so it goes. But for whatever reason, I feel obliged, maybe even obligated as a former teacher, to hold the line (not the fort this time) on certain expressions that are lovely in their very strangeness. “Champing at the bit” is one such expression.
At Jean Marie’s suggestion, I “looked up” (Aaugh! Googled!) the phrase. To my dismay, I learned that not only did the now-familiar chomp begin as a variant of champ, it has, in all usage except the above, utterly obliterated it. The Grammarist website notes,
Champing at the bit can sound funny to people who aren’t familiar with the idiom or the obsolete sense of champ, while most English speakers can infer the meaning of chomping at the bit.
So I may have to surrender this time. Is it worth holding the fort (sorry, couldn’t resist) against such overwhelming odds? Maybe not. The bit remains, of course, and I have just discovered a whole page showing dozens of different shapes and designs. The language there is rich: “A kimberwicke acts like a mild curb bit.” That’s something.
Still, I love the image and the sound that the unfamiliar phrase creates: champing at the bit— a horse, mouthing the hard metal device, not in discomfort, but in eagerness to get started, to run off at a gallop. That’s how metaphor works, after all. Two things compared that are unlike, but similar enough to make the comparison sensible. It’s the management of strangeness that makes the language bloom in our minds. Chomping is just a little too familiar for me to feel the metal between my teeth, and chew on it, ready to head off down the road.
Hold the Fort
No, I’m not a grammar Nazi. I don’t correct people on the street. I believe there are “grammars” plural, not a single, one-size-fits-all grammar, and that these are determined by occasions of speech and writing. Nevertheless, I am concerned by what I just learned are called “eggcorns”: words and phrases that are misheard and transformed. Apparently there are people out there saying that something “spreads like wildflowers.” An eggcorn. Hmmm. Like acorn, misheard.
The difference for me between grammatical correctness and these critters is that, for one, English grammar is sometimes arbitrary and dependent on the whims of a single writer from the past. I won’t go into detail here, but if this is news to you, I invite you to look up some history of English grammar and see where your favorite pet peeve originated. My second reason for treating these extended malapropisms differently is that often they have a history and a more concrete, authentic history than some rule of grammar. For example, a phrase I hear often these days is “hold down the fort.” I don’t remember where I started hearing it, but I do know that within my lifetime, “hold the fort” was the common expression. I worry that the context has been lost and the meaning and power of the original expression with it.
So I decided to check myself on that. Here’s what I found. The language and usage site English.stackexchange.com, quoting the Cambridge Idiom Dictionary, wrote, “since the Middle Ages, ‘hold’ in a military context has meant, ‘to keep forcibly against an adversary; defend; occupy.’ If the commander of a fort decided to take some of his forces to make a foray against the enemy, he would always have to leave some of his men in charge of a reliable officer to hold the fort against any possible attack while they were away.”
So where does “hold down the fort” come from?
I suppose many things in this world are legitimately held down by something or other. Tents. Beach umbrellas. My impulse to make jokes at certain inappropriate moments. Even a job can either be “held” or “held down,” the latter implying a time of duress, as opposed to regular employment. But a fort? Nope. It just doesn’t happen. With the military context lost, the color of the phrase and historical significance and the connection to dramatic and heroic moments in history are all lost. And I believe that is a loss for the language. And I will object.
So go ahead and find a preposition to end a sentence with. If we’re just talking, I won’t jump down your throat. But “eggcorns” are just the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.