My Favorite Word

Why isn’t contemporary English good enough for me?  As I run through the glossary of terms which crop up often in my writing, no particular word gives off a luster that sparks my heart more than my mind, though owl  and the old Appalachian term ruddock come close.  Something birdy in all that, but the word that does summon me back again and again, I can seldom get away with using.  It’s an Old English word we can’t even spell — matholode — but the “th” is more accurately represented by an obsolete letter called thorn.  Maybe my computer can make it, but not with me at the controls.  Imagine a backwards “6” with the loop smaller and a horizontal slash about where a “t” would have one.  It’s a voiced dental fricative approximating the “th” sound in “thief.”

I love the four-syllable sound of it.  I believe I was taught that the stronger stress is on the initial syllable, the secondary accent on the third — ma‘ tho lo da, the “a”s and first “o” short, the other “o” long.  [Somebody correct me if I’ve misremembered.]

So what?  The word occurs in the opening line of the anonymously-authored OE poem “Widsith,” which recounts the professional life of a gleeman (or scop or bard), tells what stories he sang and to whom and to what affect.  It’s a beautiful piece, 142 lines ending in the claim that fame and glory don’t fade.  (OK, so it’s a bit over the top.)

What has possessed me for four decades, however, is the problem translating that “matholode.”  Most people just write “sang” and move on, but Tom McGowen suggested to me those eons back that the word implied “sang,” “chanted,” “breathed” all together, and it has since seemed to me the ideal mode that poets should aim for, especially when they perform a poem they’ve toiled over.  Frost could do it, Heaney, Roethke, Carolyn Kizer, Merwin, Ann Deagon.  So many can’t, straining for it and overshooting or not even trying, too cool to care.  When I read a poem in the arena of my imagination, I want to make that chant-song sound, but nothing falsely portentous, more a homespun ceremony.  And it has something of “told” in it too, of story.  “Matholode” — maybe an owl’s call, maybe a ghost or the core of the self.

Why not raise the bar, knock yourself ou? I ask, fail better each time?  I do love that word.

Here’s a girl with the kind of harp Widsith would likely have strummed.  I hope she knows the poem.

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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3 Responses to My Favorite Word

  1. Lauren Starnes says:

    The words that I are love are often words that are particularly fun to say and cause my mouth to move in a pleasant way. However, these qualities are almost indescribable. Some of my favorite words are canal, catharsis, bushel, and Gibraltar. Great post Professor Smith!

  2. Rod, now I too love this word. It sounds earthy–like motherlode. I wish more poets and teachers of poetry heeded the breath and song of poetry when reading it aloud. I can’t imagine reading poetry aloud without Matholode. Glad I paid a visit to Snopes today.

  3. Nour says:

    Nice one – it weakens and neerlesthdeads days with curses – I love the way those lines play into each other. Very clever.I had the same problem with the bus this week. Ended up struggling on and off with my inner chicken before finally wringing its neck (so to speak).While this might not be exactly angry, I think you’re definitely touching on something with that last line – ouch.

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