Thursday, May 20, 2021

'Man and mother's son take heed'


     Not many events require even the most basic ceremonial dress nowadays. You can be a pall bearer in jeans, get married in a t-shirt. People do it all the time.
     But graduation from college, with the years of efforts and boatloads of money, robes and special hats are still in order, and while I haven't done a study, I'd be surprised if one student in a thousand fails to fall in line, despite being young, a period otherwise associated with nonconformity.
     New York University scrubbed their in-person graduation, but sent my older son a charming velvet cap. There was something vaguely Florentine about the flat, eight-sided flat hat, it spoke of courtiers and dirks thrust into knee socks,. I delved a bit.
     The cap is called a "tam," and is the traditional headwear for doctoral candidates, as opposed to the undergraduate mortarboard and tassel. A law degree is technically a doctorate, "juris doctor" or "doctor of jurisprudence," though lawyers mercifully do not use the title "doctor," for reasons that are murky, a law degree being about as difficult to achieve as, say, a doctorate in education.
      Despite its Scottish name, the academic tam is not descended, stylistically, from the Scottish cap, but from the Tudor bonnet.
     There was no entry for "tam" in my Oxford English Dictionary, but I dimly remembered that "tam" is short for "tam o' shanter," and there is an entry for that. "In full, tam o' shanter bonnet cap," the Oxford explains after letting us know—to my surprise—that it derives from "the name of the hero of the Burns poem of that name (i.e. Tom of Shanter)."
     Scotland's national poet, Burns lived and wrote in the second half of the 18th century, and his heavy local dialect can make the poems thick slogging to modern readers. But I worked my way through "Tam O' Shanter," a tale of drunken camaraderie, and was rewarded with a number of sharp lines. It begins, perhaps oddly, reflecting on the wife at home, growing angry:
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
     "Nursing her wrath to keep it warm" seems a handy phrase to have in your back pocket.
      It gets murkier from there. Tam is, in his wife's estimation, "A bletherin, blusterin, drunken blellum" ("blellum" = "a lazy, talkative person"). After drinking away days at market, he blunders home. He looks into a brightly-lit church, at first hopefully, then finds  some kind of grotesque festival of witches and warlocks and the appliances of murder. He finally makes it home, thanks to his intrepid horse Maggie.
   How did the name of the poem's ne'er-do-well hero get grafted onto a Scottish hat? Being on the road, I haven't had the time to dig deep enough for an authoritative source, but I think we can guess successfully. "Tam O' Shanter" is perhaps Burns' most popular poem, one that might actually be known to non-Scots, and it would be natural for them to attach its title to the odd headgear they were encountering. I've found evidence of that.   
   "Now the milliner's name for a flat broad hat, based originally on the blue bonnet of Scotland," the Cornhill Magazine wrote in 1890, that "now" making it sound a recent development. Though I found a poem in Punch  about the hat in 1880. Before then, the references I noticed were to the verse, not fashion.   
     Checking into this also solved a mystery I had never even thought to ponder. There is a Passover cracker that Manishewitz makes called the "Tam Tam." Not the most Jewish-sounding name.  Yet, probably because I've been familiar with them all my life, I had ever paused to wonder why they call them "Tam Tams." And now I don't have to. 


16 comments:

  1. Favorite Burns story: Hugh Beaumont as Ward Cleaver & Richard Deacon as "Lumpy" Rutherford's dad arguing about whether the quote w/"of mice & men" is Shakespeare or Burns. Ward has it right: "The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/Gang aft agley" is from Burns' "To a Mouse." Mr. Lumpy is unconvinced. That is all.

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  2. I love your writings on etymology. Language fascinates me. Probably because I'm so dreadfully awful with it. Now I'm wondering Which came first, the cracker or the poem?

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  3. "a law degree being about as difficult to achieve as, say, a doctorate in education."

    is that a shot at Dr. Jill Biden?

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    1. I was giving him credit for that, so I hope it was...

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  4. Tam O'Shatner is also a golf course in Niles Illinois. Nice 9 hole. Which use to be a 18 hole course that use to host World Championship of Golf back in 1953. He could go there and wear his Tam and play 9 on Tam's golf course. Maybe something special happens.

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    1. I may be wrong, but wasn't Tam O'Shatner one of Captain Kirk's wives? ; )

      I've played that course a couple times and liked it pretty well. Of course, 9 holes is usually just about enough for me...

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    2. No, it's what Captain Kirk wore on "Star Trek"--when he golfed with Spock.

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    3. What were the chances that my winking-smiley-face emoticon would be separated into two lines? I blame the Klingons. D'oh!

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  5. Lawyers may not use "Doctor" as a title, but the pompous ones put "LLB" after their names & the beyond extremely pompous use "Esq" after their names.

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  6. Not sure whether I'm more impressed that you got your son to pose for the ole blog or the way you brought the essay around to conclude with the Manischewitz Tam Tams. Both were noteworthy.

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  7. Thanks, Mister S...I don't think I've eaten that "Passover cracker that Manischewitz makes" more than once or twice in my entire life. I even thought they were called "Tim Tams"--silly me. That's the name of a pricey Australian biscuit that Walmart sells for twenty bucks a package.

    It was also the name of a well-known racehorse that won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1958, and who was then put out to stud for another 22 years. He died in 1982, at 27. The chocolate-covered biscuit is named for the horse.

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  8. My Scottish wife applauds your evocation of her national poet and would like to take advantage of the occasion to correct the common American mispronunciation of a word from an even better known Rabbie Burns lyric: i.e. the last word of Auld Lang Syne should be pronounced as written -- with an s, not a z.

    Beyond that she salutes your etymological delving and would extend to you the honorary Burns dinner salutation:

    "Here's tae us,
    Wha's like us?
    Damn few an'they're a' deid."

    Tom

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  9. "Delved" is a word you don't come across much these days. Brings to mind a famous couplet from an incendiary sermon preached by John Ball to a bunch of revolting peasants in the 14th Century: "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman." First coming across it, I assumed it referred to coitus, dirty minded little sod that I was, but now Wikipedia advises it was probably an agricultural reference.

    Tom

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  10. Mazel tov to family. The shirt steals the pic!

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  11. It's clear that you don't have experience with graduations at big state universities. Not only did I not attend my graduation, I didn't know any classmates who did. My niece was the 10th in our family to graduate from the University of Michigan and since she was in the reasonably sized school of nursing instead of the giant literature, science, and the arts, she said she was going to graduation and we could come watch hers since none of the previous nine had bothered to attend their own. We did.

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