Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Beguine?

When they begin
the beguine
it brings back the sound
of music so tender
it brings back a night
of tropical splendor
it brings back a memory of green.
         Cole Porter, 1935
When they start showing the black and white movie, and the young lady with lovely bare shoulders begins to sing “Begin the Beguine,” my feelings fly back, right back to my childhood, because this music had flown on the waves, yes, before I was born, before I had been.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it took nearly three quarters of a century before, last night, and for the first time, I asked myself what it was, the Beguine? Blame it on close captioning of spoken text, brought us by those helping the hearing-impaired. The lovely sound had suddenly become something I could read, and that, in my case, is a stopper. Beguine?

Oh boy! I had no idea that the word revealed such dizzying depths! Wikipedia first informed me that the beguine is a dance and derives its name from begue, meaning a white person. The feminine of begue is beguine. From Martinique. But where’s Martinique? Well, travel to Venezuela’s easternmost, northernmost coast and swim to Trinidad and Tobago. Travel to the easternmost and northernmost coast of that island and look due north. You won’t see it, but there, hidden in the ocean mists, is Martinique, a French-Black sort of place where they speak Creole. The way our singers actually pronounce the word is “begeen,” not with the French oui-sound that I’d reflexively use. Therefore for those like me, until close-captioning “learned” me, I’d assumed a poetic meaning like “Begin the Begin.”

But this only for starters. Things get really wild. Let us put our little hand into the big hand of the Online Etymology Dictionary and march backwards. In colloquial Martinique Creole, béguin actually means a boyfriend, girlfriend—and thus an infatuation. When they begin the beguine, they fall in love. But earlier the word meant a child’s bonnet—and earlier yet, a nun’s headdress. Come again? A wimple?

Now the word really deepens. It turns out that members of a woman’s spiritual order founded in 1180 in the Netherlands, in Liege, were called beguina, from Latin. My dictionary doesn’t actually tell me what that meant, but here we have the linkage to the whimple, as that word is also spelled. The order, unfortunately, decayed (in the hands of imitators) into a heretical sect; then the men got involved in the 1220s, called the Beghards, who, evidently, were organized hypocrites (one meaning of beguin, the male kind of fake monk). Hypocricy lay in disguising aggressive beggary by making it seem religious. And, surprise, the English “to beg” and “beggar” originates in this condemned order. Wow! I bet you knew no more about this than I did. And I’ll make you another bet. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of Ru-Tube either. Ru-Tube is the Russian version of You-Tube, and herewith I’m pleased to point to a Ru-Tube presentation of this famous song accessible at this link.

Genius ultimately has the last word. This word would have long, long ago sunk and become a fossil had it not been for the genius of Cole Porter—whose words and music make “Begin the Beguine” instantly recognizable even today and arousing the same basic emotions even as far away as Vladivostok.

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