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Monday, November 7, 2011

In Flanders fields the poppies...












I recently took a group of ballet lovers on a trip to Paris and Belgium that included a visit to the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp. Driving from Antwerp to Bruges, we noticed that, as Canadian John McCrae's  First World War poem immortalized, the poppies in Flanders do indeed.... Well, what exactly is it they do? If you filled in that line with "grow" you would be botanically correct, but in fact the famous line is "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row."
(There is some controversy about whether he did in fact use "blow" or "grow" in his original version, but the first published edition has "blow" in the first line. Later in the poem he does have " If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.)
"Blow" in this context means "bloom", the word which has for all intents and purposes taken over from it, but wouldn't have provided McCrae with a very good rhyme. It is not the same "blow" as the one we use when referring to strong winds or extinguishing birthday candles, but rather is derived from the Old English word blowan (to bloom, related to the modern German word for "bloom", bluehen). The windy "blow" came from another Old English word, blawan. As luck would have it, the past tense for these verbs was identical, so gradually blawan acquired the same spelling in all its forms as blowan.
In this week of Remembrance Day, whatever those poppies are doing in the fields of Belgium, spare a thought for all those who are buried beneath them.

6 comments:

  1. Was "blow" with the meaning "bloom" a common usage when McCrae wrote the poem?

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  2. So, "full-blown" means "in full bloom" and has nothing to do with the wind--right?

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  3. Had to memorise that one so knew it. Should bring blawan back . . .

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  4. From the 1600s on, "blow" in the "bloom" sense seems to have been used only in poetry. So it wouldn't have been common in McCrae's time. OED links "full-blown" with the windy sense rather than the flower sense, though I suspect they may reconsider that when they get around to revising the entry (which probably won't be for years yet).

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  5. Grow apparently was the original concept, emerging from the freshly dug earth around new graves. It is said to have been changed by the editor at Punch weekly, London England, who accepted the anonymous reader-submitted poem for Dec. 1915 Dec. 8 issue. Later when it became famous, he wrote out some copies, dated as of this first publication, and from memory used the original word.
    Blow is quite usual when referring flowers swaying in the wind. Anyhow we Canadians are happy with this suprise masterwork, aren't we ?1

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.