What are words worth?

As Talking Heads alumni band Tom Tom Club once sang: “What are words worth?”

Well quite a lot when you think you knew a few of them and in the space of a day you encounter two — make that three actually — brand spanking new ones.

The first is colporteur. No, not some some charmless Frenchman attempting to say the name of that chap who wrote Night and Day, Let’s Do It, You’re the Top, Begin the Beguine, I’ve got You Under My Skin and a dozen more jazz standards, but you knew that anyway.

But first, before the drum roll reveal, how did I luck upon this word? Glancing through a street directory for the tiny village of Monks Eleigh in Suffolk for 1844 I came the entry for one Edward Paine a Baptist missionary and colporteur. Intrigued I looked it up.

colporteur 1

Here’s some etymology… ‘Colportage is the distribution of publications, books, and religious tracts by carriers called “colporteurs” or “colporters”. The term does not necessarily refer to religious book peddling. From French colportage, where the term is an alteration of comporter, “to peddle”, as a portmanteau or pun with the word col (Latin collum, “neck”), with the resulting meaning “to carry on one’s neck”. Porter is from Latin portare, “to carry”.’colporteur 2

Wikipedia even has a page about them and it’s here

That’s the first dealt with — and the second? Actually second and third?

I’ve always been a sucker for the Theremin, that Futurist musical device from which you snatch unearthly tunes from the living air. But it has a cousin. And these are my two new words. There is a keyboard version invented in 1928 and known as the Ondes Martenot (Martenot Waves) after the inventor, Maurice Martenot.


Martenot was a cellist whose experiences as a radio operator in World War One led him to develop the Ondes. This wasn’t just a nutty professor idea though. Messaien composed for it and Stokowski used it in his orchestras.

You Tube has a bunch of demos of the instrument in video but the Messaien piece shows the instrument — actually six of them — at its best.

Words in papers, words in books
Words on TV, words for crooks
Words of comfort, words of peace
Words to make the fighting cease
Words to tell you what to do
Words are working hard for you
Eat your words but don’t go hungry
Words have always nearly hung me

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1 Response to What are words worth?

  1. Pingback: All cattywampous | Actonbooks

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