Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Chuntering on...

In my Middle English reading group we are reading bits of Piers Plowman. We read the Prologue and Passus I, then skipped over the whole Mede episode (I know: it's a scandal), and marvelled at the author's apologia for his life (newly introduced in the C-text).

Today we read the conclusion to this passage, where Reason and Conscience send Will off to the church. "Wepyng and waylyng," he falls asleep and has another vision. He tells us,

Of this mater Y myhte mamele ful longe...

Our intrepid editor, Derek Pearsall, glosses "mamele" as "chunter." Pearsall's glosses, in this and in other editions are mostly helpful and accurate and are often engagingly inventive. This one is simply terrific: we explain one rare and imitative verb with another equally rare and equally imitative verb, though "chunter" is coined somewhat later than "mamele". Both seem to mean to "mutter", or "murmur," while "mamele" seems to be formed on analogy with the Dutch lollen, which gives rise to the contentious noun, "lollard," in the fourteenth century, with all its freight of heresy, etc. So speaking and muttering and mumbling and rambling on, in this period, is risky business, indeed.

"Chuntering" is one of those words that blazed into the language at the end of the sixteenth century, and isn't recorded after the 1870s. In addition to the muttering, mumbling senses, OED also lists "to grumble, find fault with, complain." The OED's last example is from 1870: E. Peacock, Rolf skirl, II. 117 Th' capt'n went away chunterin'. 

Sometimes a word just comes back into the language, even by means of a slightly odd gloss. A bit like a song that gets into your head, the word "chuntering" has got into mine, and under my skin today. I keep thinking so much of our lives — reading, writing, emailing, blogging — could be described as "chuntering". Perhaps it's the buried suggestion of trains "shunting" along; perhaps it's the Led Zeppelin song, "Rambling on"? Either way, today at least, as I go about my tasks this afternoon, when I describe myself to myself, it'll be as "chuntering on."

6 comments:

elsewhere said...

Not to be confused with chundering?

Christine said...

It's a lovely word, chuntering. A lovely word about wandering and rambling - playing, perhaps.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

"Chuntering" captures with precision what I'm doing now as I revise essay upon essay. Perfect!

Sarah Randles said...

Chunnering (the pronunciation I know) is pretty common in northern English dialects - the Lancashire part of my family uses it regularly, usually with 'stop' in front of it, and usually addressed to grumbling or grizzling child, or someone who's having a bit of a rant. The Derbyshire part of my family uses 'wittering' in pretty much the same way.

There's also a folk song, 'The Wife of Usher's Well', which has the fabulous line 'the chunnering worm doth chide', indicating that time is up, and the dead who visited the living will have to return to Paradise. What the worm is, and why it's chunnering, I don't know.

Cathy Hume said...

In Lancashire growing up I heard people say 'chuntering' with the 't' pronounced - agree with Sarah on the usages - it's a bit more belligerent than just 'wittering', I'd say.

Miglior acque said...

My mother is from Northern Ireland and uses the verb 'to chander' meaning to grumble, complain or whinge, perhaps even lament. I wonder if it's related to "chunter" and "chunner".