The DLR would like to carve out a little interlude in the catastrophic shrapnel of economic news that is raining down upon us to consider the particularly beautiful word ‘moraine’. (And indeed ‘moraine’ could be used to describe this accumulated shrapnel — feel free, time-harried journalists, to do so.)
This interlude is inspired by Brian Dillon’s piece in this month’s Cabinet on the explosion of a store of gunpowder in a former Delft convent in 1654, immortalised in a painting that same year in which a ‘moraine of rubble divides the immediate scene of destruction from the foreground, where the inured or dazed are attended to’.
Moraine is one of those beautiful things, like silver toast racks and tea strainers, that has only one specific use — to describe geological detritus — but perhaps unlike silver toast racks, it has its mega-fans.
The etymology itself is somewhat special, eschewing our typical Greek and Latin constructions while also politely refusing the exoticism of recent globalised imports.
- “ridge of rock deposited by a glacier,” 1789, from Fr. moraine, from Savoy dialect morena “mound of earth,” from Prov. morre “snout, muzzle,” from V.L.*murrum “round object,” of unknown origin, perhaps from a pre-Latin Alpine language.
That’s ‘Provençal’, once a major Romance dialect in southern France, and ‘Vulgar Latin’, which is less exciting than you think.
Pre-Latin Alpine language! What a long and counter-hegemonic history this word charts.
So as we mentioned before, it’s rare, but those who love it, love it well. You can tell they love it well because they do not deviate from its meaning — that is, they do not rip it to shreds and make it mean all sorts of new things, like they did with ‘passion’, ‘great’, ‘brave’ and ‘terrible’, the bastards.
The poet Joseph Brodsky used it twice (to the best of our Google knowledge/sieve-like memory), once in the poem ‘A list of some observation’, and when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1987, bringing a bit of grounding to the event:
And as far as this room is concerned, I think it was empty just a couple of hours ago, and it will be empty again a couple of hours hence. Our presence in it, mine especially, is quite incidental from its walls’ point of view. On the whole, from space’s point of view, anyone’s presence is incidental in it, unless one possesses a permanent – and usually inanimate – characteristic of landscape – of a moraine, say, of a hilltop, of a river bend. And it is the appearance of something or somebody unpredictable within a space well used to its contents that creates the sense of occasion.
Not to be terribly tangential but the DLR cannot help but be reminded of perhaps the Number One Best and Most Ballsy Deflating of an Overblown Sense of National Occasion, by the Reverend Joseph Lowery at the 2009 Obama inauguration (see what we did there with that date? there might well be another, necessitating that date as a distinguishing adjective).
James Fenton used it for a title of one his collections: Terminal Moraine, entering a note of temporality to what was previously a static concept. Oh, crazy 20th century! Always with your movement.
John Ashbery used it in ‘The Lightning Conductor’, glitzing and glamming and lording it up.
Subsiding into fitful slumber, warily he dreams
of the giant hand descended from heaven
like the slope of a moraine, whose fingers were bedizened with rings
in which every event that had ever happened in the universe could sometimes be discerned.
It is, we rest our case, a word with an illustrious lineage over the past few Googleable years. We like it because it sounds like morels, those yummy mushrooms, and Moreau, that lovable chap. Well done, word of unknown pre-Latin Alpine dialect! We salute you and release you into the wilds of English. Go out and prosper beyond the gates of poetry.