Three words

Three words.

They have seeped into the reluctant light of this very English time, and now they’re trying to make stories. It’s what words do if you leave them alone and unsupervised for too long.

A few days ago, it came down: a thick, cloying, cold vapour, hanging like a corpse’s whisper over everything which has so lately been light and sun drenched. It is not unfamiliar, this home-counties-particular, but it dulls the spirit. Moving through it is a damp venture. One can never be completely dry.

It is a day for Dickens: so many of his scenes deploy this fog, and I cannot help but recognise when it arrives as a tiresome old acquaintance, part and parcel of being English.

Hello, old rogue. I remember you from A Christmas Carol : “The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already.

“It had not been light all day: and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.

“The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms.”

What Dickens took a perfect paragraph to say, a word exists to encapsulate. Dreek.

An informal word, this: not to be found in the smaller, older Oxford Dictionaries. My understanding is that it’s Scottish. It means miserable, misty, damp to the core and light stifling.

Dreek is not an end in itself. It led me up a little misty alley towards other words which are seldom spoken, yet hold a world of story in their hands.

I met my second word against an incongruous background. And while it holds dreek’s hand and lurks ominously in the shadows, it was a beautiful Summer’s day when first I heard it spoken.

My husband’s best friend was, I think I have mentioned before, a clever, gothic, redheaded eccentric called Max, a story in his own right.

One of the last of the gentlemen, son of a Harley Street doctor, he has since become a fitness guru with a penchant for large expensive motorcycles. But in our twenties he had a Volvo Amazon, a pale blue vintage statement of such character and style it had to have a name to match.

Max must have thought hard about the name he chose for his car. Like Phil, he loved to combine wit and the unsettling. Create a bit of a stir.

And so he called it Eldritch.

The Oxford Dictionary has a tiny entry for this ancient word: thought to be at least 16th century, it is the very depth of weird: the most grotesque that ‘unsettling’ has to offer.

And how underused! I can only find one classical reference, from Cecil Day Lewis’s From Feathers To Iron, written in 1935. Day describes a Utopean experience, a moment of ecstasy, and dampens it utterly with this line: “Sudden the rain of gold and heart’s first ease, traced under trees by the eldritch light of sundown.”

Max’s car did not appear grotesque: but the word he chose courted everything that was rare, and unusual, and surprising. Its name was a beckoning story, a chance to question. I never asked why the car was called Eldritch; but the word has haunted me through decades.

Until today. Today, eldritch and dreek are being carefully removed from the hope chest- or should it have another name? –  and unwrapped to set on the shelf  in the English half-light.

But there are three spaces on the shelf.

The third is not an English word at all. It stems from the word the French used to use to describe their Latin books: grammaires.

But by the 18th century they were called another related word suffused with shadows: grimoirs.  Books of Spells: enchanted algorithms.

But the popular Victorian occultist movement snatched the word and accorded it garish significance.

The book of spells, the grimoire, is still the sort of book one opens at one’s peril and storytellers use it voraciously,from CS Lewis’s book The Magician’s Nephew in which a book waits in a dead city to wake Narnia’s evil queen, to El Club Dumas by Spanish Author Arturo Perez-Reverte where the grimoires, taken together, form  a diabolical puzzle.

The weather here is strange. It draws words out of you: words you had long forgotten, never entertained, didn’t even know.

And without realising you are co-operating, they begin to work together to weave a tale, down there in your subconscious where the shadows thrive.

Who knows what dreek, eldritch and grimoire are cooking up as I type.


48 thoughts on “Three words

  1. Lovely, Kate! At least the fog has lifted here this morning.

    Eldrick sounds such a familiar name

    did you know this –
    Tiger Woods’ full name is Eldrick Tiger Woods?

  2. I am laughing at myself – I thought after the preamble that the three words were going to be ‘pea-souper fog’!

    *preens* I have used the word ‘eldritch’ in my Forest Circle Quest..

    Dreek is to be added to my vocabulary. Thanks.

  3. I like to choose words that sound like their meaning. So eldritch for eerie, spooky, weird – no, I don’t think so. Grammaires/grimoires sounds like a grammar text book or perhaps dictionary. But ‘dreek’ now there’s a word I would love to use. Must be the Scottish blood in me, but I think it is so apt that I wondered if it didn’t originate from a cross between ‘dreary’ and ‘bleak’! Such an interesting post, Kate. Thank you.

  4. Maybe I didn’t understand you well … But in French, grimoire has also the same meaning as in English: it’s a book of spell. But thanks to you, now I know it comes from “grammaire” (i never thought about that) and it has another meaning in my own language thatI didn’t know !!! 🙂

    1. Thanks for that Matthias, and hello!: you’ll see I’ve taken out the outrageous French claim
      😀 Grammaires were just books in Latin originally; as time wore on I suppose the last books to be written in Latin were spellbooks…

  5. Fog, although it creates a strange beauty, always elicits a vague unease in me. Hence, these three (new to me, too) words give me goosebumps. I envision three little, up-to-no-good, characters, skulking in the mists . . .

  6. What a wonderfully rich language we have. But “dreek,” while it sounds approriate for a dreary English fog, doesn’t work for me. Fog in my world is a beautiful, mystical thing — a temporarily earthbound cloud, a chance to touch the sky.

  7. I can’t wait to slip these three words into aptly appointed dialogue…eldritch may be the favored of the three! Often a word seeps into my consciousness as a little word bubble I almost picture above my head. An insistant visual aid I won’t shake it until it has brought me to some new revelation. And maybe you can help me come up with a more current name for the “hope chest” I’d like to one day give to my granddaughters–or should I just expand the meaning and inspire “hope” for many things! Debra

  8. Thanks for re-introducing me to “dreek.” I hear the distant call of my aunt’s brogue echoing o’er the moors . . . ‘Tis dreek today. I’ll not gae oot.

    And thanks for sharing glimpses through Dickens’ words as well. What pictures he paints!

  9. Dear Kate,
    Of course,the beginning of your post today reminded me of Carl Sandburg’s poem–“Lost.”

    Desolate and lone
    All night long on the lake
    Where fog trails and mist creeps,
    The whistle of a boat
    Calls and cries unendingly
    Like some lost child
    In tears and trouble
    Hunting the harbor’s breast
    and the harbor’s eyes.

    And yes, I can feel the dreek in this and perhaps an onlooker in the harbor might cherish the use of a grimoire.

    My three words today are ordinary, but an apt description of how I spend much of my life: I am bemused.


    1. 🙂 Bemused: yes, I spend much of my life that way, too, Dee. What beautiful sparse words these are: a perfect evocation of our three, but without that British sense of pantomime drama. That child’s eyes fixed on the harbour turn this from mischievous story weaving into something quite desolate. I can only enjoy words like mine with a mummer’s mask on…

  10. Thank you, Kate. You entice, entertain and teach. Well done. I really like dreek. I’m going to adopt it. We have dreeky weather frequently during winters on my island.

  11. Now you have me baffled, I have seem Eldritch used in a few books as it was quite familiar to me, but who, in what books remains a mystery buried under a million useless bits of information that cause a frequent stack-overflow in my tiny brain

    what wonderful words you unearthed, they make one slightly uneasy, even in the safety of one’s own home, possibilities sneak in along with the fog

  12. The three words sent shudders down my spine. Dickens’ perfect paragraph read like poetry. The three words are also very poetical. Full of tales and lurking shadows. Very apt for the fog.

    1. They are: this weather must seem oceans away for you, Banno! Hope the film festival is going well.Loved your latest review. It is wonderful to hear someone who has known and loved a film writing about it as if about an old friend. And now I must see it.

  13. You’ve hit upon two of my favorite words: eldritch and grimoire. Dreek is fantastic, and I will now go about using it with a Scottish burr. Aren’t words scrumptious? While writing, I often find myself sidetracked into reading the dictionary when all I meant was to check a meaning. And I love your fog, too. My rambling research has me in Victorian London, and your post gave me a wonderful image of a “London particular”, cold and greasy and lit weirdly by gaslight (an eldritch glow). What a great post!

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