“Magpiety”: getting to the bottom of it.

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magpie2“Magpiety.” I had thought the title came from Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and his poem by that name – his translator Peter Dale Scott has assured me that he himself invented the word, though I thought Miłosz had made the same claim. Anyway, I wrote all about the word Magpiety here. I thought the subject had exhausted itself and I had become the world expert.

Then I received in the mail the galley proofs for a collection of Melissa Green‘s poems, which will be out later this year: Magpiety, published by Arrowsmith Press in Medford, Massachusetts. When I scanned the table of contents, I expected to find a poem in tribute to the late great Polish poet – along the lines of Philip Levine‘s poem “Magpiety.” Nope.

My OED dates the usage of the word to 1845 (“Not pious in its proper sense/But chattering like a bird…”). Long before either Miłosz or Peter Dale Scott were born. The mystery deepened. Arrowsmith publisher Askold Melnyczuk sent me the author’s note that is to go at the beginning of the volume. In it, the poet writes: “Magpiety arose directly from the anonymous Renaissance poem ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’ and with the call and response of the lesser known—and probably later—’Mad Maud’s Song.’ In order to write my version, I searched for language that had fallen out of English in order to invent a dialect for Maud’s voice as she struggled with delusions, her dread of madness, of the loss of Tom, and of Bedlam.”

Had the OED been bested by several centuries?

So I wrote the poet for an explanation, and this is what she said:

For a while, even I thought I’d invented the word Magpiety!

I hadn’t remembered it from the Miłosz – in fact, if pressed, I would have said I had yanked from one of Mark Strand‘s poems, but I must have been thinking of Philip Levine.

I have bushel baskets full of words with the same kind of frisson, that sit in the cellar year after year, ripening, until I need them, until the source of the word has been forgotten. I didn’t actually find any evidence for its use anywhere as early as the Elizabethans; rather when the time came to write the Mad Maud poems, I remembered the word ‘magpiety’ and employed it like a valise to pack in all the meanings I could in the manner of Humpty Dumpty.

green-melissa

She likes the twinkly bits.

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: probably shortening of dialect maggot the pie, maggoty-pie, from Magot (Middle English nickname for the given name Marguerite) + pie (Old French from Latin pica)

‘Mag’ came to mean a woman, an idle chatterer, whose daylong running monologue, I imagined, expected no reply – so I saw Maud’s poems as full of a mad self-talk, with the world not responding. (The Corvidae are loud and raucous talkers). My confirmation name is Margaret, which made ‘Mag’ appropriate. It was easy to extend ‘pie’ to ‘piety’ (though I do remember your OED reference mid-1800 as the opposite of true piety; Pierus claimed his nine daughters sang as beautifully as the Muses and they were turned into magpies for that hubris/impiety). I am a magpie-ish kind of writer – drawn to the shiny, twinkly bits – but this magpie is full of reverence for the world. The rhyme in my head went ‘mag/hag/bag lady’ which is how I am convinced I’ll end up.

She ended with an apology: “Sorry I have no legitimate trail of breadcrumbs for you to take this word back into linguistic history. You see I just used it to suit myself.”

Connection with Miłosz?  Coincidence. Who would have guessed it?


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