Friday, 31 October 2014

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates. With a True Tale by way of illustration.

Tenebrous (also tenebrious)

Ten-uh-bruhs: Adjective: dark; gloomy; obscure; shadowy; hard to understand

From the Latin, tenebrae, darkness

Related forms: tenebrousness, noun; untenebrous, adjective; tenebrific, tenebricose, adjectives

Tenebrescence, also related, is a scientific process, also known as reversible photochromism, which is basically the ability of some minerals to change colour when exposed to sunlight, an effect that can be repeated indefinitely but which is destroyed by heating. You have almost certainly encountered this phenomenon, possibly without being aware of it, as tenebrescence is what photochromic lenses are up to when they darken through exposure to sunlight, by which, of course, we mean the good old self-adjusting sunglasses. From the same tenebrae root, we also get temerity, which means rashness or boldness in the sense of blindly, in the dark, or without sufficient advance information. Temerity has a rather attractive adjective as part of its family, this being temerarious, though, much like pulchritude, it is one of those words that doesn’t really seem cut out for the job it is being asked to do, seeing it means rash or reckless.

At the very mention of the word temerarious, any of you with a smattering of History of Art might well have been reminded of the image of the doomed ship being towed to its ultimate destruction in the widely acclaimed and well-known Turner painting, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838, (catchy title), the name of the vessel coming from the French, téméraire, in this case meaning bold or gutsy. Though the crew knew her as the Saucy rather than the Fighting Temeraire. And, whilst we’re nitpicking, the ship was being towed up the Thames (westward, in other words), so the sunset could not possibly have appeared behind her, plus by the time she got to where she is shown, her masts had also longsince been removed. Apart from that, though, darn good effort, except that she was pulled by two steamboats rather than the one depicted in the painting.
 
Whilst we’re on the subject of History of Art, from the same root comes Tenebrism, a school or style of painting adopted chiefly by seventeenth century Spanish and Neopolitan painters. Foremost amongst these was Caravaggio, who invented the pronounced chiaroscuro method characterized by broad areas of darkness highlighted with a single source of light, and was, as we all know, an infamous homosexual who notoriously killed a rival over a game of tennis. Except, of course, most of the above is simply not true. Caravaggio ( or Michelangelo Merisi (or Amerighi) da Caravaggio, to give him his full title) was indeed a hugely gifted exponent when it came to using light and shade for dramatic effect but the mannerism had been pioneered by others long before him, including Albrecht Dürer, Tintoretto and El Greco, whilst the word chiaroscuro (from the Italian chiaro, "clear, bright," and oscuro, as in obscure) didn’t come into use until the 1680s, some seventy years after the artist had gone to his tragically premature grave.
 
As for killing another man, well, that much at least is true, though it wasn’t over a game of tennis, even if he did have the reputation that "after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." He was notorious for brawling, even in such violent times, and he was jailed on several occasions, vandalised his own apartment and eventually had a death warrant issued against him by the Pope. Many of his paintings reflect his taste for brutality, featuring at least two beheadings, for one of which (David with the head of Goliath) he used his own portrait. On 29 May 1606, he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, possibly unintentionally, a pimp who used to hang around one of Rome’s most successful prostitutes, Fillide Melandroni (that’s her doing the decapitating), who Caravaggio just happened to have a bit of a thing for (bang goes the gay theory, though he is supposed to have “swung both ways,” whatever that might mean) and he liked to bung her into his paintings, so he was none too happy about Tomassoni’s overly close attentions to her, resolving there and then to teach him a lesson he wouldn’t forget in a hurry. By castrating him. He was undoubtedly an exceptionally gifted artist but, sadly, and rather unfortunately for the hapless Tomassoni, he was no great shakes as a surgeon and the attempted orchidectomy (to give it the technical term) resulted in the demise of his young rival. Caravaggio had to leg it into hiding but in the end the Pope decided to forgive him and it was on the way to receive his papal pardon that he caught a fever and died, on 18 July 1610 at the age of thirty eight.

By this point, we must be just about due for this time’s True Tale and, bearing in mind what our Word to the Wise actually is, it’s a pretty surefire bet that we’re about to descend toward the very depths of nefarious tawdry, that dark and murky underworld that dwells mainly in a disturbed and overwrought subconscious lurking in the deepest recesses of our minds, so if you’re at all of a sensitive disposition, or happen to be susceptible to shock and outrage, or if you possess any artistic or aesthetic sensibility whatsoever, it’s probably best to look away now. Before it’s too late. Far, far too late …

So, you decided to stick with it after all, did you? Stout fellow! Now, when it comes to mention of the word in question – tenebrous, that is – it’s also fairly much of a certainty that, of all the imagery that it may conjure and evoke, it is unlikely that anywhere amongst them is the glittering plateglass frontage of the well-known retail outlet, Superdrug. And yet that is the ultimate direction in which we find ourselves most inexorably headed at this precise moment, and onward, ever onward, right into its very penetralia with its myriad arrays of baffling sweet-scented productry that you never knew you didn’t need and probably never will either, should you ever discern the intended purpose that such cosmetic frippery was actually designed for. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now.

To begin at the beginning, our Tale this time features Frank and Rory, an ageing gay Irish couple at the very centre of our libationary activities back when time was, and quite often the very heart and soul thereof. Both had clearly kissed the Blarney Stone at one time or another, though their individual loquaciousness’ took very different guises. Frank was master of the tall tale, stories so shaggy that they gave the inescapable impression of being the direct result of a scriptwriting collaboration between an actual but somewhat shifty cockerel and his equally untrustworthy bovine partner. And yet, so convincing were they that to doubt seemed nigh on perfidious, if not outright treachery. Like the time he insisted that his first job had been putting the pips into raspberry jam. You may well scoff and make sneering comments like How did you fall for that one? but it’s fact that, during World War II, they only had the cheaper apple or rhubarb jam, which they then coloured to pass off as the more popular raspberry, having first added a convincing final flourish of some wooden pips. Sometimes there was no fruit in it whatsoever. A bit like Sainsbury’s Basics range.
 
Rory, on the other hand, was more camp than Butlins and made absolutely no secret of the fact – why should he? – and he could tell even the mundanest of stories and still have your sides aching and the tears rolling down your cheeks, using nothing more deadly than his own inimitable style. This particular Saturday evening he was relating to us of how he’d spent his afternoon in Camberwell, down in the Aylesham Centre, aka Butterfly Walk (for those who may not be aware of it, Camberwell is closely associated with a legendary and possibly apocryphal butterfly known as the Camberwell Beauty or Nymphalis antiopa, hence the reference to butterflies in the architecture, though there is nothing whatsoever of the Beauty about the Aylesham, being your bogstandard arcade of shops such as Snappy Snaps, the 99p Store, Morrisons, Currys and, of course, Superdrug). Anyhow, there Rory happened to find himself, mooching around and not doing anything much in particular when, all at once, he is assailed by a rather slattern woman with a drink-reddened face and an unusual odour all of her own, who then starts to beseech him for some spare change.

‘Just a pound, love, that’s all,’ she appealed (though we use the term in its loosest sense herein), grasping his arm lest he should attempt to flee. ‘That’s all love, just a pound.’

Aghast and horrorstruck at his situation, Rory then proceeded to do what any of us might have done under such trying circumstances: he said he only had a five pound note, that he would go into Superdrug and when he came out he would give her some change then. Which seemed to appease her, enough to release him, at which he escaped into said store with a mighty sigh of relief. The plan was to spend as long as he could within – bear in mind that four minutes can seem like a lifetime when you’re confined inside Superdrug – and hope that in the meantime she would wander off in search of better pickings. Eventually, and having examined minutely every single item on display therein, he finally calculated that the coast must, by now, be clear, at which he stepped boldly without once more. Straight into the mantis-like grip of the selfsame crone. Hopeless situations call for desperate measures: there was nothing else for it but to cough up, and so he handed her two shiny pound coins. For a moment she was speechless with astonishment. And then:

‘Two pounds!’ she gasped, in utter disbelief, exactly as if she had never before set eyes on so fabulous a sum. ‘For two pounds you’ll want to take me round the back, won’t you? Is that what you’d like, my love?’

Nothing could possibly have been any further from his mind than that and you would really need to have seen the utter revulsion written on Rory’s face as he reached this part of his tale, your classic bulldog sucking an extremely bitter wasp and then some, to appreciate the abhorrence etched there. Which only made it all the more amusing to those of us foregathered at that memorable moment, so absurdly vaudeville was the whole scenario.

‘Me?’ he screeched in a pained effeminate falsetto. ‘Can you just imagine? Me? Go round the back? With her? Shocking bad, so it was!’

At last, our hilarity (which this has failed utterly to convey, but you’d need to be Rory to recreate it) began to slowly subside. Meanwhile, behind the counter stood the barman, an eternal bachelor, ostensibly polishing glasses, though keeping one ear cocked toward all that was being said. He waited patiently until the laughter had died into silence, then he looked Rory straight in the eye and, without flinching even a muscle, asked:

Which branch of Superdrug did you say it was?’






Images:
Fighting Temeraire: J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Judith: Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David: Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Camberwell Beauty: By Kymi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


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