Discover more from Other Feminisms
Missing Calendars and Missing Kennings
The rhythms that give shape to our lives and our language
After two weeks of anticipation of Dobbs abortion decision (and a morning spent on the SCOTUSblog site), I wanted to do an Other Feminisms far removed from current events.
One major difference between Old English and Modern English is how concrete Old English words could be. We see this in their terms for time, specifically their names for months. According to Videen, months were counted according to the phases of the moon and were named after festivities or seasonal changes. February was sol-mōnaƥ or “dirt-month,” most likely due to the excess amount of mud after the snow melted. May has a much more uplifting but stranger name: “three-milkings month.” Videen suggests that there was an abundance of vegetation, therefore an abundance of food for the cattle, forcing farmers to milk their cows three times a day. […]
Their terms for months may seem archaic (though I think there should be a petition to rename February as “mud-month”), but they understood the experience of time better than we do now. They distinguished between a time for refreshment (rōt-hwīl), a time for leisure (æmet-hwīl), and a time for longing (langung-hwīl).
I’m always drawn to ways of marking time that differentiates time into seasons, instead of an endless repetition. I really missed the cycle of semesters and summers after graduating from college. It was a depressing moment when I realized that, by default, many jobs just simply go on, with no festal or ferial occasions.
As a Catholic, I shape my life by the liturgical calendar. There are the shadowed seasons of Advent and Lent, which burst out into the glory of Christmas and Easter. There are the scattering of saints’ days and quiet ember days (and my husband faithfully changes over the liturgical colors on our little oratory).
As a woman, my cycle kept a different calendar, but one that no one else shared with me except my husband. When we were trying to conceive, it meant that each anticipated test day would be either a day of rejoicing or of disappointment. And it was tough to know just that a big day was coming up, without knowing what kind of day it would be. When we were pregnant, my days were kept by blood test appointments, to find out if this baby would live.
That’s another domain where I felt a bit envious of the Old English speakers and their concrete, evocative language. In the doctor’s office, it felt like clarity was kept at a distance by abstracted jargon.
Old English (and Old Norse-Islandic) kennings put together two images to make a vivid reference (e.g. hron-rād "whale-road" from Beowulf). I recognized this approach in Jennifer Pownall’s personal essay on her own losses, and her need for different language.
I needed to have a name for my plight – to describe the harrowing state of being a parent who has lost a child. I needed to define myself by my loss, as might an orphan or a widow. My heart demanded a title for my pain, for how else was I to address it?
But, at least in English, no such word exists.
The word she invents for herself is “bairnlorn.”