The English, their Scaffolding and a resolution

As I have been a bit remiss in getting posts up this week, and before I have a longer meditation on meandering out to the World War Two memorial at Madingley, I wanted to put up a quick reflection on … scaffolding.

scaffolding along King's Parade

Yes, scaffolding. The British seem to love it, as it’s all over the place in Cambridge. Now, it might just be because the buildings tend to be a bit on the older side (OK, very, very old indeed, which is cool, of course, for someone who fancies himself a historian, even if he is in many ways just a wannabe’ one, or at least a fledgling in the historical trade); older buildings tend to fall apart, of course, but from what I can tell, it sometimes seems like they throw scaffolding up just because there’s some excuse to do so … come to think of it, I’ve never seen any sort of crane about town, which might explain why methodical and very orderly metal-and-wood carapaces tend to sprout up all the time, all over the place.

it's practically ubiquitous! (I've been wanting to say that in a caption)

Along King’s Parade near the city centre (yes, “centre” with an “r” before the “e”), for example, scaffolding has lined the row of shops facing King’s College since the beginning of Michaelmas (autumn, or what we Americans call “fall”) term. I can’t quite tell why, but it’s still there, looking very official, and thus very English. Walking past it any number of times, I’ve theorized (and they would spell that with an “s,” as in “theorise”) that there must be something wrong with the roofs, or gutters, or something up high, and therefore requiring layers upon layers of orderly scaffolding right along the road. Back home, scaffolding seems to go up at construction sites and therefore away from the sidewalk, but here it’s very much part of the path. You are expected to saunter right through it. Just don’t stumble and shove the pylons too hard … .

I’m sure there’s quite a few good reasons for this affection (or what C.S. Lewis might call storge, pronounced with two syllables and a distinct “g”) for scaffolding, but I do suspect it’s very English in the sense that one schedules (“shed-ules,” yes, they really do say it that way, and declare, “you must be from the States!” if you pronounce the “sched”) scaffolding periodically.

It’s true that many of the buildings here predate our country’s independence from its motherland (notice that we’re now “cousins,” and no longer children). But many of them only do so because they’ve been rebuilt and remodeled and just generally redone dozens of times. So a “part” of a building might date from the Middle Ages, but big chunks might have been renovated by a king or queen a century or so after that, and then the south or north or east wing or floor or foundation or something like that was replaced by one of Cromwell‘s comrades (his head is here, by the way; I shall find it and blog about it soon, I promise), and then finally redone “recently” in the 19th century.

inside the grounds of Trinity College

Many of the “new” Georgian wings of buildings are really what we would consider old, in that regard. Some of my local friends roll their eyes with stories of dumb Americans (being one, I have empathy) who ask the perturbed porters if a truly medieval portion of their colleges is “prewar,” or it dates from “Queen Elizabeth’s time,” to which the porters will gruffly reply, “sir, this is from before the colonies became states and left us.”

But for all of its sometime silliness, I have been continually humbled by the history here, and feel calmer in Cambridge this quarter, realizing that my time here is rather limited, really, and therefore resolving to make the most of it.

I have been trying to explore the city and its surrounding environs more thoroughly this term, but I also want to venture a bit further afield, if possible, and get over to Oxford sometime later this month to see where the Inklings spent some of their time, at Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College (without the “e”) and the Eagle and Child (pub); I also want to get down to London at least a couple of times before I go home for the longish break (very much a working break, I assure you, from March 12 to about April 19).

To that end I’ve managed to procure a student “rail card.” All this is very new to me, as it’s my first time overseas, and so I am learning the hard way more often that not, but I am learning, a lot, all the time, which I suppose is the point of this self-reflecting exercise. Next term, however, I’d love to get up north, to Scotland, and maybe even over to Normandy, if at all possible, but I’ll save the fun stuff for later, once I get more done on my paper, Lord willing.

I sometimes remember that’s why I’m here (at least in theory): “oh yes, that paper … hmm … well, I guess i should work on that a bit more, I suppose …” .

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This week’s word: “doldrum”

looking Serious as I Study

My apologies for not being so prolific with posting this past week. I was blindsided and then thoroughly becalmed by a nasty cold through the weekend and have only just now started to feel better. I promise to finally put up a new post on my long walk out to Madingley, and at least another fresh one soon on a silly Englishism or two (scaffolding, anyone?).

But for now, here is this week’s word, doldrum, which you can find on The Cambridge Student‘s site, on page 18, but also here:

“It now being well and truly wintertime, the cold and the chill in Cambridge can either serve to inspire the studious to press on toward the greater glories of spring, or leave them wallowing in the frigid academic doldrums. Singularly “inspired” by a recent, and maliciously stubborn, head cold, this columnist has been enduring a bit of a doldrum (yes, singular), of his own, which brings us not-so-coincidentally to this week’s word.

A “doldrum” was once defined, as the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) reminds us, as a “dullard; a dull, drowsy, or sluggish fellow.” As such, its first appearance in recorded written English, in this now-obsolete form, comes to us in the Sept. 7, 1812 edition of a publication called the Examiner, with the line, “A doldrum is, we believe, the cant word for a long sleeper.” But the April 13, 1811 edition of the London-based Morning Herald contains the first use of the plural form, “I am now in the doldrums; but when I get better, I will send you.”

Interestingly, a slight shift in meaning had occurred, as the OED defines the plural as “a condition of dullness or drowsiness; dumps, low spirits, depression.” We can hardly blame slang for changing, of course, as that is part of its nature. As for the actual etymology of the word, it is old, derivative slang from “dull,” which may come from an old Germanic root word (“dwel-”) meaning, “to be foolish.”

George Gordon Noel Byron, aka Lord Byron (1788–1824) gets the credit for using the word in its more becalmed, nautical sense for the first time in The Island, with the line, again thanks to the OED, “From the bluff head where I watch’d to-day, I saw her in the doldrums; for the wind Was light and baffling.” From this more generalized sense it took on a more specific meaning, to the region near the world’s equator where the trade winds tend to nullify each other, to the annoyance of sailors, who, well, use sails still. More cerebrally, to be in a doldrum can mean that one is “intellectually nonplussed,” or, to borrow a handy cliché, that one has hit the proverbial brick wall: mentally, of course.

I sincerely hope that if you are in such a sate, that you can get out of such a doldrum, or doldrums, as soon as possible. If you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”