Weird Words: Bend and Bow

It's that time of year when I worry about the Holly Bears. There can't be too many of them in rural France, but you never know.

In France, although there are Christmas songs, there isn't the same tradition of Carol singing, or bearding people to their front doors to either endure the performance with a smile or offer spiked mulled wine to the revellers in the hope of slowing them down. So French people don't know about Holly Bears, and the way they lurk behind Yuletide installations, with their cheerful red waistcoats and wreaths of ivy.

Traditional English woodland spirits aside, there must be something about December that gets me thinking about words. This time from another song, the nursery rhyme, London Bridge is Falling Down.
Courtesy of Bridgewater Links Golf Club - picturesque ain't she?

Thankfully this is no longer any concern for the City of London or its Mayor, since as any schoolboyorgirl knows, London Bridge is in Arizona. It's actually a very handsome bridge, and as the song says, once built up with stone-so-strong it seems to be making a good go of lasting ages long.

By now, you're all wondering what's in this drink.

The children's song asserts that London Bridge is Falling Down. Verse three proposes to shore up the structure with Iron and Steel (eye Nan steal, if you remember was a precious artefact shared between the three blind witches who advised Perseus on his quest to, *cough* borrow Medusa's head in order to kill 'the Kraken'... actually the mythology is all a little confusing in any case, and made all the worse by the 1981 film Clash of the Titans... But that's an excellent excuse for me to drop in a little homage to Ray Harryhausen.)

You might have the impression that this rambling tangential post is out of the ordinary, but actually all my blog posts start out this way. Then I edit them.

Now. Where was I?

Bend and Bow.

Pretty much anyone can pronounce bend. Bow can be a problem. Bad fantasy writers will say that one of their characters (either the cool one or the nerdy one, depends on the writer) is good with a bow. I say bad writers but actually they just don't know that for hundreds of years, people would say that someone was a skilful, gifted or experienced archer - but somewhere along the way, fantasy writers forgot that the word archer existed. Rant over.

In that situation, you know exactly how to say bow. And if I tie a ribbon or a shoelace you know, too. And also if I take a bow. But not if I take a bow and sew it onto a pretty frock. And if I go around to the bow of the ship, but not if I go around to the bow-window to look through it at the bow-fronted cabinet.

It's a minefield. A very small, very well indicated minefield that very few people can be bothered to cross. So lets go around.

In the song, Iron and Steel both bend and bow. In this case, bow is a verb. And you could be forgiven for thinking that the only reason why the song has both words is for the alliteration. Bend and Bow sound good together.

But whoever wrote the song (I'm reliably informed that Nobody Knows who wrote the song), clearly knew that bend and bow are not synonyms. They are very closely related verbs, but their meaning is both subtly, and extremely usefully, different.

In general, Iron is either very rigid and brittle, and therefore does not flex at all - if you try to bend it it will snap - or iron is rather soft, and will tend to bend like an elbow, sharply at its weakest point. Steel, however, can have another property - springiness. So steel, rather like a yew bow, can flex evenly all along its length, forming a continuous curve. Iron bends, steel bows. To bow is to flex like a steel spring or like a wooden (or fibreglass) bow, whereas to bend is to flex like iron, or an elbow.


Nothing is ever black and white in English, and words that are nearly synonyms often just are synonyms. There's no evidence that bend and bow signified different kinds of flexing from their derivations, and throughout much of their existence, they've been pretty much interchangeable. However, the distinction (which for bow-windows and bow-fronted cabinets might be a consequence or that might be a completely different word, bough) seems to have arisen around the way that a longbow flexes, and I quite like this nicety, unnecessary and seldom applied as it might be.

Oh... and the bow of a boat is completely unconnected, and actually comes from a word meaning shoulder so, er... don't put your trust in etymology.

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