OU blog

Personal Blogs

Picture of Geoff Cooper

From Telephone Poles into the Maelstrom

Visible to anyone in the world

As my mind is currently a maelstrom of confused ideas and threads, I’ve written something which has come out of course material but which has not been asked for. ‘As usual,' BB might say. You will appreciate the purpose of the one italicised word very shortly. After Workshop feedback, I have no idea where I am going for TMA01.

Toby has written eloquently, mentioning a work about Bombay that we may have read, and a work on telephone poles. I have called this

From Telephone Poles into the Maelstrom

I always thought maelstrom was an old Norwegian Viking word. It deserves to be, as you may appreciate below. It is not of Scandinavian origin. Maelstrom is Dutch, identified as originating in the seventeen century.

There are multiple definitions: ‘a powerful whirlpool in the sea or a river’; ‘a situation or state of confused movement in violent turmoil’.

My reason for wanting it to be a Norwegian word is because the most powerful tidal current, ‘Saltstraumen Maelstrom’ lies in Arctic Norway. Vikings would have known it, even if they didn’t call it a maelstrom.

I’ve sailed past Charybdis. So did the Ancient Greeks and Romans. I suspect most ancient Mediterranean mariners did. Homer had two foes that he wrote about, Scylla on the rocks and Charybdis, the maelstrom. Glittering eyes would have been transfixed on both. My eyes were tight fixed asleep, sailing past the ancient torments, through the Messina Strait. Our 100,000 ton cruise liner made no deviations. Little problem with the currents. At least, not that we were aware of, as we ploughed on for Genoa.

My friend knew what a maelstrom was. Because her brain was wired up differently, life was a constant battle with the real and the unreal. Violent turmoil chartered her mental capacity.

Currently, Great Britain, the native country I have deserted, is in the midst of a maelstrom. In this case, nothing to do with the weather.  Nothing to do with geophysical conditions or unusual marine phenomena. Two polarities lurk in the midst of this maelstrom. One is self made.  Potentially, self inflicted. This is the chaos that is Brexit, and the fact that, no one, not even the most avid pro-brexiteer, has any idea how it will turn out, what leaving the whirlpool of decision and negotiation — not to say the divisions — will look like. At the other pole, even more urgent, perhaps, is a world-wide maelstrom where few dare predict the outcome. There are all-knowing and far-seeing idiots— who can see a way through. Science is yet to catch up with them. Covid might.

I love that word, maelstrom. It is a word well-worth caring for, savouring, worth rolling around the lips, the tongue, the mouth. It has the bouquet of a fine red wine, perhaps of the finest sherry from Jerez de la Frontera. There is music and poetry in just that one word. A juicy, rich mix of percussive consonants and sonorous vowels. In my ignorance, I thought Dutch was a harsh, guttural language. Clearly I have not listened sufficiently well, walking the streets of Amsterdam.

Dictionaries and clever lexicographers can identify word-use-frequency over time. Many people must like maelstrom as a word. Its word-use-graph has increased exponentially in the past one hundred years.

Many years ago - I have forgotten what it was to be a young man — as part of a degree course, I studied linguistics. Linguistics didn’t teach me about the beauty of  the word maelstrom. The word itself has such harsh, violent meanings, yet it is such a musically satisfying and gentle word to say. Onomatopoeia where are you now? Perhaps on the rocks, with Scylla in the Strait of Messina, heading for the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Asking for a whisky on the rocks would be a digression too far.

(To my friends on the forum, in the ever more bewildering naming of genres and sub-genres, define this one for me.)

Share post


Picture of Geoff Cooper

Since writing this.....

.....I have seen the word maelstrom attached to an article about the US presidential election, to an opinion piece on British politics, on a report about a Nicaragua hurricane and in connection with a sporting event. It seems that I could have included many more relevant references!