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Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and Geoffrey Chaucer Loved to Google

May 10, 2009
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I’m going to be honest to you, Internet, about something. I don’t understand Twitter, nor will I ever. I have no desire to update friends and family on the errata of my everyday existence. This is the sort of critique likely given by my grandparents. But then again, maybe not. Apparently our favorite Internet-ing verbs have been in our lexicon for a little too-long. It’s nice to know that if we were to say that we live in a “twittering world” that T.S. Eliot has already beaten us to it in “Burnt Norton.” (1936) Can you imagine his Twitter feed? His “tweets?” “He do the Policemen in Different Voices” is certainly less than 140 characters. Either that, or he’d be quietly complaining about his miserable (read: non-existent) sex life with wife, Vivienne.

Eliot wasn’t the only one ahead of his time though. Both Virginia Woolf and Chaucer (who has hath a blog for years) used the verb “blackberrying” which I never thought was a verb outside of our contemporary parlance. The OED would like to tell me otherwise:

black{smm}berrying, vbl. n
The gathering of blackberries.

Simple and idyllic enough, don’t you think? Let’s turn to Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Prologue to explore the implications of this usage:

I rekke nevere, whan that they been beryed,
Though that hir soules goon a-blakeberyed! (405-6)

The Riverside Chaucer glosses “goon a-blakeberyed” as “to go blackberry picking,” which holds pretty true to the OED definition. Really though, reading a little more deeply into it, the Pardoner is trying to prevent souls from wandering off carelessly, as apparently “blackberrying” is a carefree activity.

Virginia Woolf’s use in The Waves is a little bit eery when we consider what “Blackberrying” means for us today:

one has to say that though it is tempting now and then to go blackberrying; tempting to play ducks and drakes with all these phrases.(260)

“Blackberrying” here certainly takes on the carefree connotation of Chaucer: blackberry picking as means of escape. What is so great about this usage is its proximity to “play[ing] ducks and drakes with…phrases.” When we send text messages (or Twitter, like Eliot) we are constantly modifying our language to fit within the technological constraints. From this we end up with a myriad of great acronyms (BRB, LOL, etc.) and an entire language of abbreviations (or better known to the valley girl variety as “abbreves,” How ADORBS!). In a completely impossible way, Woolf seems to predict the linguistic effect that “Blackberrying” has on our lexicon, both written and spoken. In reality, the phrases that Bernard (the character who thinks/speaks this in The Waves) is trying to subvert are the ones that turn his life into a dull succession of impersonal anti-climatic sentences from an unoriginal biographer.

Bernard is “blackberrying” to escape. Isn’t that what we all do? To escape standing alone before the concert we’re about to see? To escape our present reality by informing our friends not present on our latest status?

Gotta love chronologically impossible foresight…unless they all had a time-machine…

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