Category Archives: specialized knowledge

“Mak steals one of their sheep and goes home to poach it.”

Mak is the main character in the sheep-stealing subplot of the “Second Shepherds’ Play” in the Wakefield Cycle, a group of medieval plays depicting the history of the universe from Creation to Last Judgment. The various cycle dramas, or Mystery Plays, that have come down to us, mostly as fragments, are lively biblical dramatizations that also provide a vivid picture of life in the Middle Ages; in my BritLit survey we have time for only this one piece, and we began discussing it yesterday.

This student statement comes from a previous class, and, alas, it gives us a vivid picture of life in the present day, when our vocabularies are limited and we aren’t even aware of it.

What the Wakefield Master meant by Mak’s poaching is, of course, the act of stealing the sheep from a fellow shepherd, and thus from the lord on whose land the shepherd grazes the lord’s sheep. We all know this meaning of “poaching,” don’t we? —well, except for this student. I’m not sure, actually, without going back to comb the text, that the Wakefield Master actually uses the term “poach.” I routinely use it when talking about the play and this subplot, though. And that means that the student would have had ample opportunity to raise her hand and ask me about the term. Evidently she didn’t feel the need.

Yes, Mak takes the sheep home to his wife Gill and says he can’t wait to cook and eat it. But he doesn’t say anything about putting some water on to boil. And I don’t know about my student, but I have never had, or heard of, poached lamb. It sounds like possibly the worst way of preparing lamb, actually. I’ve poached many an egg in my day, and a number of fish; but although I have stewed meats such as beef and lamb and chicken, I have never thought of that as poaching. Either my student defines “poach” as “cook somehow,” or her family serves up some odd cuisine.

A quick visit to the battered Webster’s Collegiate I keep under my desk reveals that these two meanings of “poach” don’t even have the same origin: the cooking term comes from the French poche, meaning pocket (with an Old English equivalent pocca, bag), hence to simmer in a container of simmering liquid; the illegal act comes from a Germanic term by way of Middle French and has a Middle English equivalent, poken, to poke, hence to trample with hooves, to trespass on, to trespass in order to steal. Now, this surprises me. I had assumed that the second sense, to trespass and steal, was related to the French poche, picturing some peasant sneaking onto the lord’s property, trapping a lordly rabbit, and putting it into the pouch he wore over his shoulder or had sewn into his jacket. And, whew, when I check my OED, I find there noted a possible etymological connection of the second sense with poche, after all.

“Poach” in the sense of “steal” is still active in our vocabulary, as most of us know, even though we don’t have lords with private herds of venison or landlords with tenant shepherds. I wonder what went through my student’s mind the first time she saw a No Trespassing sign that specified No Poaching, or when she heard that a phone company was poaching on Cablevision’s turf by adding cable service, or heard that some corporate headhunter was “poaching” executives from another firm. Now, there’s a dish even less appetizing than poached lamb.

“The 13th birthday is often a right of passion.”

I’ll just make the obvious comment that this statement is the result of lack of specialized knowledge (the concept of a rite of passage) and inaccurate hearing.

Then I’ll remark on the unintentional truth of the statement—after all, as another student wrote in another context, “at an early age teenagers start to have hormones.”

And then I’ll sit back and let you enjoy.

“We know he’s Jewish because his grandson had a brisk.”

We can speculate, though, that the student who wrote this is not Jewish.

But that isn’t necessarily true. Plenty of people apply misheard terminology to things they’re perfectly familiar with. Their polite friends and family don’t correct them, but probably enjoy a quiet and indulgent chuckle. Or maybe all the men in their family believe they have had brisks.

I like the idea of having a “brisk.” My student heard the unfamiliar (to him) word briss, or bris, and it wouldn’t process through his lexicon. Instead, he thought he heard a word he had heard before and assumed he was hearing it again. He must not have understood the word “brisk” either, though, since he didn’t feel the need to provide a noun for the adjective. That would explain why he didn’t hesitate to choose a word that doesn’t fit the sentence: only someone who doesn’t know what “brisk” means could imagine having one.

I wonder what would go through his mind if someone commented on a “brisk morning” or a “brisk wind.”

Or if someone offered him a nice slice of brisket at a holiday dinner.


[P.S. This example isn’t a Mondegreen, since his version makes no sense of any kind, whereas Mondegreens create strange new images. I just read one in a Facebook post: quoting the song “Davy Crockett,” someone included the line “Kilt a timber-b’ar when he was only three.” “Kilt him a b’ar” hadn’t registered as possible for the child the poster had been when she first heard the song, although I don’t imagine she had ever heard of a timber-bear either. I laughed only briefly before realizing that I had always thought Davy “grazed in the woods till he knew every tree,” evidently imagining he recognized the trees by the flavor of their foliage….]

“The prison doctors had to remove part of his brain and shoot electricity through it to calm him down.”

Lacking the right words and a visual imagination, this student came up with a pretty bizarre treatment for an out-of-control patient.

“Frontal lobotomy” and “electroconvulsive therapy” are the words she needed, and if she had had these words the sequence described in the sentence would have been imaginable, albeit therapeutically questionable.

The brain, including frontal lobe. Source: Mike Farabee, Ph.D., Online Biology Book. Estrella Mountain Community College (Maricopa Community Colleges). Online via

Instead we get a picture of the prisoner sitting on his bunk, head bandaged, while one doctor holds up a chunk of brain for him to behold as another doctor aims a cattle prod at the chunk, ready to zap. I would think that even without his frontal lobe the prisoner would not find this sight calming. Larson could probably make a hilarious cartoon out of it, though—Gary, are you listening?

Luckily, most of us can be calmed with soothing words, soft lights, and a nice cup of tea (or wine).

“a day of fasting and humiliation”

Now, this is a term of art in Puritan practice, and in other Christian sects as well. “Humiliation” refers in this context to self-abasement, self-humbling, before someone or something acknowledged to be greater. The OED offers a number of citations referring to humiliating oneself before a king (especially in the 1400s and 1500s) or before God; and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) declares,  “How much we ought to …examine and humiliate our selves, seek to God, and call to him for mercy.” In fact, as far as the OED can demonstrate, this meaning of “humiliate” was the meaning, until in the 1700s it acquired the additional sense, the one that prevails now (except for religious observers of Days of Humiliation), of loss of face, public shaming.

I have said before that students try to make sense of new or unusual words and phrases through the lens of their own experience; but I also tell my students, particularly in literature courses, that if they find a familiar word being used in a way that confuses them they should go straight to the OED and see if there’s another meaning that would clarify the issue.

THIS student did not follow that advice; instead, she gave an accurate statement and then followed it (she couldn’t resist!) with a clarification of her own:

“The governing body of Plymouth met for the last time on the last Wednesday in August to have that day be a day of fasting and humiliation for not getting a Charter sooner.”

And those last six words, meant to show that she understood what she was saying, sank her.

I knew what she meant because, with an academic specialization in 16th- and 17th-century literature, I have done a lot of reading in Christian texts. She thought she knew what she meant because, as an undergraduate not majoring in English literature (or religion), she had no idea “humiliation” had a sense other than pejorative. I can’t blame her entirely; but I do blame her a bit. I corrected the error but tried not to humiliate her!

Going through my Book of Horrors this summer in preparation for beginning this blog, I had marked this quotation to use on August 31, the last Wednesday of August, to commemorate the governing body of Plymouth and their holy exercise. But thanks to Irene (possibly the only thanks offered up to that watery lady monster), August 31 was my first day of classes this term (instead of August 29), and the entry I had earmarked for that took precedence. Still, give the Puritan gentlemen a thought today, and also pause to marvel at a language that lives so large.