Posts Tagged ‘Etymology’

The Great “Silm” Hoax?

Monday, March 1st, 2010

….Has a former Poet Laureate of the U.S. been punk’d by nerds?


Robert Hass is my favorite living poet.  I’m not trying to start a critical argument about whether he’s the best, but I enjoy reading his work the most.  When I was a junior in high school, I performed his “Berkeley Eclogue” (from Human Wishes) as my poetry piece in forensics-league oral interp, and years later I had the privilege of taking his workshop in my final semester at Iowa.  He even taught me my favorite word—or at least, I used to think so.

I first heard the word silm when Bob explained it from the podium at a reading in Iowa City in late 2000, before reading (perhaps an early version of) his poem that contains it, which later ended up in 2007’s Time and Materials:


Her body by the fire
Mimicked the light-conferring midnights
Of philosophy.
Suppose they are dead now.
Isn’t “dead now” an odd expression?
The sound of the owls outside
And the wind soughing in the trees
Catches in their ears, is sent out
In scouting parties of sensation down their spines.
If you say it became language or it was nothing,
Who touched whom?
In what hurtle of starlight?
Poor language, poor theory
Of language. The shards of skull
In the Egyptian museum looked like maps of the wind-eroded
Canyon labyrinths from which,
Standing on the verge
In the yellow of a dwindling fall, you hear
Echo and re-echo the cries of terns
Fishing the worked silver of a rapids.
And what to say of her wetness? The Anglo-Saxons
Had a name for it. They called it silm.
They were navigators. It was also
Their word for the look of moonlight on the sea.

At the time, he identified silm as his favorite word and, mature poet that I am, I promptly stole it from him.  We need an elegant word for… well, pussy juice (you see how hard it is to refer to at all without being offensive?) in modern English, and silm fit the bill.  That “moonlight on the sea” double-meaning bit really made the ladies swoon.  It is not every poet who can make the ladies swoon by stepping up to a podium and saying “Here’s a new word I found for pussy juice,” but that’s Bob.

While working recently on an essay about offensive vs. inoffensive words for female sexual equipment and/or functions over on my other website, I was planning to bring up silm, and thought I’d go research it a bit first.  It’s a good thing I did.  Because I consulted multiple Anglo-Saxon dictionaries and, as far as I can tell, the word just straight-up never existed.

Unless the Anglo-Saxons omitted silm from their records but then privately sent Bob an e-mail about it, there was no such word.  One might assume that the word for pussy juice was simply left out of the dictionaries, but this doesn’t hold up, because if “It was also / Their word for the look of moonlight on the sea,” then it would be in the dictionaries with that definition.  The closest word they seem to have had, and the one that probably was their word for pussy juice (the Anglo-Saxons were notoriously blunt in their naming habits), was slim, with the “i” before the “l”—whither our modern slime, and pronounced the same way.  Presumably, a word that is effectively indistinguishable from “slime” (indeed, one that is technically the same word) does not have the same chances of catching on as the 21st century word of choice for pussy juice among the debonair of the Humanities building.

Plus, there’s nothing in there about the “moonlight on the sea” bit.  As far as I could tell, Hass just up and pulled that out of his ass.  Until I did a bit more research.  Once again, I’m glad I did.  Because it turns out that silm is actually one form of a word that does mean moonlight.  There’s only one problem…

…That word is not Anglo-Saxon.  It’s Quenya.

Quenya, as in the freaking language of the Elves from Lord of the Rings.

In case anyone who doesn’t follow poetry somehow stumbled upon this blog, be aware that this Robert Hass guy is a big deal.  He was Poet Laureate of the U.S. from ’95 to ’97, and he won the Pulitzer for the book that the silm poem is in.  I don’t know anyone in the game who wouldn’t name him among the top five living American poets, and really anyone who puts him outside the top three is probably just being contrarian (if you’re looking to get into him btw, the book to start with in my opinion is Human Wishes).  You may have had a poetry instructor in college with several acclaimed books out who you thought was a big deal, but Bob Hass is more important than that person to the same degree that Bob Dylan is more important than Alice In Chains.

And he has, apparently, been bullshitting the poetry world for ten years based on a made-up language from Lord of the Rings.

This may have been an accident, of course.  It’s not like one would have to be a giant Tolkien nerd to come across silm, as it appears in the title of The Silmarillion (which name comes from silima, the shining substance used by Fëanor son of Finwë to forge the silmarils from the essences of the Two Trees of Valinor before Melkor, later Morgoth, could send the giant spider Ungoliant to oh who gives a shit).  Hass could have assumed the root was valid Anglo-Saxon, as much of Tolkien is, and accidentally conflated it in his memory with a very similar word for pussy juice in which the two central letters are transposed.  Or someone else could have made this mistake, and then Hass heard it from that guy and didn’t think to double-check his research.  Or some giant nerd could have deliberately played a prank on one of the greatest living poets.  Or said poet could in fact secretly be a giant nerd himself, and playing said prank on us.

If it is the last option, of course, then Robert Hass is an ever greater genius than I thought he was.  He made up a word for pussy juice that was actually a word for glowing magic tree soul from J.R.R. Tolkien’s most impenetrably nerdy book, tricked women into thinking it was elegant and romantic, tricked tons of English geeks including me into using the word for a decade thinking they were so suave, and then put the word in a book and won the Pulitzer Prize for it.  Only Hass knows for sure, and I hope you will join me in a public call for him to come forward.

But one thing is sure: the word silm is not Anglo-Saxon, and means none of the things the Hass poem purports it to.  Which means that, after ten years, the most elegant English word for female sexual fluid is once again “femme-spooge.”