No, I’m not going to call him Cnut!
PUBLISHED: 11:01 11 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:01 11 July 2018
Sharing knowledge with one’s grandchildren is one of the joys of being a grandparent but be careful what you tell them – things keep changing and where you used to be right, you may now be wrong.
dtrtdrt This was intended to be a cautionary tale about planning summer holiday outdoor activities because July 15 is St Swithin’s Day and we all know what that means.
If it rains on that day we will have, according to legend, 40 days of unceasing rain. In which case, picnics in meadows, long countryside walks, treasure hunts in the park and grass court tennis might turn out to be rather damp.
But in the course of some cursory research about the origins of the St Swithin’s myth (for which there is scant, if any evidence) I note that he often appears as St Swithun.
Why? He’s been perfectly fine as Swithin for most of my life and now, it seems, historical purists have got at him and re-spelled him with a ‘u’. Meanwhile, Swithin is relegated to parentheses as in “St Swithun (or Swithin)”.
At least pronunciation is relatively unaffected. The most sweeping change has undoubtedly been wrought on that warrior Queen of the Iceni, Boudica, or Boadicea as she has been known for most of my life.
Apparently it was the Victorians that romanticised the spelling which is why some bright spark felt it should revert. Why? How many letters of outrage were written to newspapers in this vein:
“Sir, I must take exception to your spelling of Boadicea and urge you to abandon all further use of that Victorian confection, Boadicea. The name is Boudica, Yours etc, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. PS she did not have knives protruding from her chariot wheels.”
Then we have King Canute who, comparatively recently was deprived of two vowels and reduced to Cnut.
When, at some point in the future, I share the story of Canute’s telling demonstration of the power of the throne, when he unsuccessfully instructed the tide to turn, I will have trouble pronouncing his name. Should I say “Nut” with a silent “c”, “Kernut” or stick with “Canute”?
It just makes things so much more complicated. Surely the best option is to stick with a recognised form... one that doesn’t get a grandparent into trouble with the grandchildrens’ schoolteachers.
If there is a good argument for change, why don’t we change Shakespeare? The Bard never signed himself thus, preferring William Shaksper, William Shakspere or variations.
In print, he was Shakespeare although Shakespear was the popular spelling in the 18th century. But although he may not have standardised his own name, we are happy to comply with the version that has been used for 200 years or more... so why not Boadicea, Canute and Swithin?
I am keeping an eye too on Anne Boleyn. She is often pronounced “Bullen” and indeed has been spelled.
It has been claimed that she deliberately changed the spelling of Bullen to Boleyn in order to make it appear more French, plus chic. The truth is, there was no standard spelling in the 1500s – Smith, Smyth, Smythe, even the most common British surnames have their variants. According to www.theanneboleynfiles.com Rev Canon Parsons who published an article on the Boleyn name found it “spelt variously – Boleyn, Buleyn, Bolen, Bulleyne, Boleyne, Bolleyne, Boyleyn, Bowleyne, Bulloigne, and the modern form Bullen”. Parsons concluded that “Boleyn was the most common of the mediaeval forms.
At least an anxious grandmother can confidently tell the story of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, knowing the spelling is acceptable... though some of the more lurid and bloody details might not be suitable for under 12s.
As grandparents, we have to hang in there and take these unprovoked attacks on our vocabulary on the chin. But it can be taken too far. Those who wish to reform our language have suggested simpler spellings. Here are a few (source:blog.oxforddictionaries.com) and I guarantee many people of my age or thereabouts will be all a-quiver at the prospect. (Oxford dictionaries do not condone such changes, I should add.)
Doughnut to donut, borough to boro, friend to frend, rhyme to rime and doubt to dout.
In response I would make a plea for the beauty of a language that likes words so much it includes vowels and consonants that are not even pronounced.
What shall I tell my grandchildren? Well, I shall tell them what it was like in the old days when I was taught about King Canute, Queen Boadicea and St Swithin.
Test your knowledge in this fun quiz ...
1. Boadicea (Boudica) defeated who at Colchester?
(a) The Anglo-Saxons
(b) The Romans
(c) Oldham Athletic
2. King Canute (Cnut, Knut) was also king of which countries?
(a) Denmark and Norway
(b) Scotland and Denmark
(c) Sweden and Colombia
3. How many times has the weather on St Swithin’s (Swithun’s day) been the same for the following 40 days?
(a) every year
(b) four times
4. What is the best way to spell island?
5. How is Shawn Carter known? (a) Jay-Z
(c) Jay Z
6. Is Harthacnut?
(a) Half as big as a whole cnut
(b) English for Hardeknud
(c) Also known as Canute III
Answers: 1:(b) 2: (a) 3: (c) 4: (c) of course 5: (b) at time of writing 6: (b) and (c)