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Valentine’s Jargon

February 12, 2008

A few literary critics have claimed that Valentine’s Day as we know it was invented by Geoffrey Chaucer. No definitive proof has been offered in support this tantalising suggestion, but many agree that when it comes to the origins of the love business, the great medieval purveyor of highbrow bawdry was there or thereabouts.

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The speculation is based on Chaucer’s poem The Parliament of Fowls, which is one of the earliest known texts to associate Saint Valentine’s Day with the making of love-matches. The love-matches in question, as witnessed by a dim narrator reporting on his dream-vision excursion to Venus’s Garden, are made between birds:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,
Of every kynde that men thynke may,
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

I’m fond of Chaucer’s vision of Valentine’s Day as being an unruly commotion of birdsong.  And we’re not just talking about the pretty chatter of larks and sparrows.  We’re talking about a bioacoustical nightmare, a squabble, a barny, a cacophonous mix of voices florid and horrid:

The goos, the cokkow, and the doke also
So cryede, “Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!” hye,
That thourgh myne eres the noyse wente tho.
The goos seyde, “Al this nys not worth a flye!”

Chaucer, whose English was planted firmly in the earth, was never one to let himself lapse into over-elegance.  Don’t you point at me, old man.

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The word jargon is properly used to mean “birdsong”. The word is now used, of course, as a derogatory description of language that is emptied of meaning, to the point that it is just hollow noise. The bird noises that Chaucer describes are not idealised — he lets the ugly birds sing, too — but they are made to mean.

Inevitably, Valentine’s Day is full of (new) jargon, so I suggest you choose the old, proper type. Be a noisy bird. Sing (like me) because you can’t. And with that, what better excuse to bring out this favourite bird of paradise…

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