Mugging Up

For quite a while now, probably at least since the start of this summer if not before, I’ve been wondering about the origin of the English word muggy, used to describe unpleasantly hot and humid weather. I’ve finally got round to looking it up…

According to the OED (or at least the Oxford Dictionaries website) it dates back to the mid 18th century and comes from mug, a dialect word (it doesn’t say what dialect) meaning “mist” or “drizzle”, which itself derives from an Old Norse word, mugga (evidently with the same meaning).

Wiktionary says more or less the same thing (minus the bit about coming via an English dialect). It also gives several synonyms – close, oppressive and sultry.

The latter is particularly interesting as, in addition to having a non-meteorological meaning of “sexually enthralling”, can (according to Wiktionary, at least) mean either “hot and humid” (i.e. muggy) or “very hot and dry”. The probable etymology is from the verb to swelter (itself coming from an Old English verb sweltan, meaning “to die”), which is used of suffering terribly, or perspiring, from great heat (with no reference to whether the heat is wet or dry).

Incidentally, today is St Swithun’s Day which, as I remember from a junior school assembly roughly 30 years ago, is traditionally supposed to determine the weather for the next 40 days (as in, if it rains today it will go on raining and if it doesn’t it will stay dry). Today has been, at least in my corner of North Wales, a lovely sunny day. Sadly, however, empirical evidence over the last several years suggests that this rule of thumb is not entirely reliable in these parts.

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To see or not to see

Yesterday morning when I woke up, I found that it was foggy (or at least misty).

It was still quite misty when I cycled to work about an hour later, so (unlike most of the cars on the road) I made good use of my lights to help ensure that I could be seen.  I particularly enjoyed cycling over the bridge, as I couldn’t see the mainland until I was almost upon it and had to take it on trust that it was still there.  There was perhaps just a small part of me that hoped the mist would lift and I’d find myself in Narnia instead.

The sun was clearly shining behind the mist and I fully expected it to burn off within a couple of hours, so I was surprised to find it still around by mid-afternoon.  It ended up staying pretty much all day.

I had an optician’s appointment in the afternoon, which is the first one I’ve had for several years.  This was just a general check-up, as I decided one was long overdue.  It confirmed that my eyesight is still fine so, in the absence of external factors such as mist, I can see without trouble or glasses.

This morning when I woke up, I found that it was raining.  Cycling over the bridge may not be quite so much fun today.

Good while it lasted

It seems that the lovely summer weather we’ve been enjoying for the last week or so has now come to an end, at least in my corner of North Wales.  There were clear signs of overnight rainfall when I got up this morning and the sky is threatening more rain soon; it was spitting slightly when I last went outside.  Actually, to be fair, the weather isn’t (yet) nearly as bad as I’d been led to believe it would be today.  It’s certainly overcast but it’s not raining torrentially as people seemed to be predicting (not that I got round to checking up with an actual weather forecast).

Still, the fine weather was lovely while it lasted and I’m sure we’ll enjoy the next bout (hopefully fairly soon) all the more for having had some slightly less wonderful weather in the meantime.  Also, if it does come on to rain properly, at least it will save me having to go out and water my garden.

El regreso del invierno

I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing.  I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night).  The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

This simple meteorological observation brings me back to some poetical and (vaguely) philosophical musings that have been on my mind  recently.  I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing. I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here, we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night). The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

A couple of weeks ago my brother, Wulf, who is evidently a bit of a closet poet like me, blogged about a short poem he’d written on the return of winter.  The poem itself runs:

Who invited winter back to sup
At dawning summer’s promised cup?

It is, however, worth visiting the original blog post (which is also pretty short), as the sentence introducing the poem itself is also quite poetical in its imagery (albeit written in prose).  Incidentally, the title of my post is “the return of Winter” in Spanish, for no particular reason.

I’m not sure if it was reading that poem or talking to somebody else about the Canterbury Tales, or possibly a combination of both, that has led me to think several times over the past few weeks about the first couple of lines of the General Prologue.  Although I’m fairly familiar with a fairly large chunk of the Canterbury Tales (I’d estimate that I’ve probably read about half of them and know a handful of them pretty well), there are very few lines that I know by heart.  Amongst these are the lines which open the whole thing:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

As Middle English goes, those lines are fairly easy to understand but, in case you don’t dig the funky spelling, a modern paraphrase is “When April with its sweet showers / has pierced the drought of March to the root…”.  This suggests that in Chaucer’s time (the end of the 14th Century), March was a generally dry month in the South East of England and April was a wet one.  Of course, this same rule of thumb may not necessarily be expected to apply several hundred years later in North Wales (especially the dry part!) but we do often seem to get quite good weather in March.  This time last year, as I recall, we were going through a mini heatwave.  This year, we had particularly fine weather through much of February and it has turned quite wintry through March.  It had, however, managed to stay mostly dry until this last week but it seems that the sweet April showers have arrived a little prematurely.

Finally, I started reading an anthology of French poetry this morning and the very first poem, by Charles d’Orléans (who was roughly contemporary with Chaucer, though a few years younger), gives us something to look forward to (hopefully soon) once the current reprise of winter has run its course.  It begins like this:

Le temps a laissié son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluye,
Et s’est vestu de brouderie,
De soleil luyant, cler et beau.

Although that’s in fairly early Middle French (probably roughly to modern French what Chaucer’s English is to modern English), it should be reasonably easy to understand for anyone with a moderate grasp of French.  For the benefit of anyone else reading this, here’s a translation (the one from my bilingual anthology – Introduction to French Poetry by Stanley Appelbaum (Dover, 1969) – which doesn’t seem to list the translators; it could well be the work of Appelbaum himself):

The season has shed its mantle
Of wind, cold and rain,
And has clothed itself in embroidery,
In gleaming sunshine, bright and fair.