Tuesday, 1 February 2011


This from Wilt by Tom Sharpe. Mr Wilt is being questioned about the disappearance of his wife.

'Interesting word "rehearsal",' he said. 'It comes from the old French, rehercer, meaning...'

'To hell with where it comes from,' said the Inspector, 'I want to know where it ends up.'

'Sounds a bit like a funeral too when you come think of it,' said Wilt, continuing his campaign of semantic attrition.

Inspector Flint hurled himself into the trap. 'Funeral? Whose funeral?'

'Anyone's,' said Wilt blithely. 'Hearse, rehearse. You could say that's what happens when you exhume a body. You rehearse it though I don't suppose you fellows use hearses.'

Well, if a passage like that won't send you scurrying to the dictionary, nothing will; and the connection to hearses is more than coincidental, it is rakish.

Once upon a terribly long time ago there was a French word hercer, which meant to rake. This gave us three words: the first was herse, meaning rake which is now forgotten and mouldering in the garden shed of language.

In modern English we still have the phrase to rake over something and that's exactly what rehearse meant. By Shakespeare's time rehearsal had already come to mean the preparation for a play, but you can, and I often do, rehearse old arguments and doctrines.

Hercer gave us a candlestick, but to explain why I shall have to briefly explain Tenebrae. Tenebrae is a morning service performed over Easter. You have a great, big, fifteen-branched candlestick with fifteen lit candles. You say fourteen psalms and after each one you extinguish a candle, until there is only one flame left. At that point the priest slams his Bible shut with a strepitus, or great noise, and the last candle is then hidden under the altar to symbolise the death of Christ.

Now, the first thing you'll notice is that strepitus is a fantastic word for the final, satisfying slamming shut of a long book that you've been reading for the last year. The second is that a fifteen branched candelabra is going to be huge. It is; and just for you I've added a picture on the right.

Looks a bit a rake, doesn't it? It does. And that is why Tenebrae candlesticks are called hearses.

Then people started putting candles over coffins: not directly on coffins, but on a framework just above, and that framework was called a hearse. And from that, in 1650, you got the carriage that carries a chap's last, wooden, bijou residence.

All of which casts a glimmering light on the word rehearse in this Shakespeare sonnet:

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sudden bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that write it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

The Inky Fool's taxi had arrived

1 comment:

  1. At the church where I usually sing a Tenebrae service, the vicar makes the strepitus by slamming the piano lid, which is absolutely terrific and leaves scarcely a pew unbepissed (or so I like to imagine).