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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Humpty Dumpty, Dogfights and Cockpits

I've been saying and hearing and seeing Humpty Dumpty a lot in the past month. It's a phase. Often when I see Humpty Dumpty he's characterized as an egg. He's also often portrayed as wearing a crown, as if he were a king. But read again and you'll find that Humpty Dumpty is not the king, nor is it stated that he's an egg.

The most likely origin of Humpty Dumpty that I could find is that it was slang for a short fat clumsy person. The specific Humpty that fell from a specific wall was a royalist mortar in the English Civil war. Mortars of the time were short fat canon used to lob big shot in the general direction of the enemy.

In the comments at www.thesession.org/tunes/display/1133
"Hoisted to the top of a church tower at Great Toddington and the New Model Army managed to demolish the wall. The mortar was broken and could not be fixed"

And at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humpty_Dumpty

"According to an insert taken from the East Anglia Tourist Board in England, Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon during the English Civil War. It was mounted on top of the St Mary's at the Wall Church in Colchester defending the city against siege in the summer of 1648. Although Colchester was a Royalist stronghold, it was besieged by the Roundheads for 11 weeks before finally falling. The church tower was hit by enemy cannon fire and the top of the tower was blown off, sending "Humpty" tumbling to the ground. Naturally all the King's horses and all the King's men (Royalist cavalry and infantry respectively) tried to mend "him" but in vain. "

Read any further on those links and you'll find other versions, but I'm choosing to believe the mortar story because it seems to fit. I am not a historian.

Another conundrum that's been sticking in my craw: fighter pilots fly in a cockpit, which is directly derived from cock fighting. And yet when they fight, it's a dogfight. So, I had a look in some other languages to see how this all transliterates:

German for dogfight is "handgemenge" or "hand mixture", which I think is a beautiful and elegant way of thinking of it. The Russian is more like "hand fight".

Japanese uses a borrowed word "dogufaito" or kuusen
The Japanese characters for kuusen are Rebellion and Game
The Japanese characters for cockpit are virtue, length and room

In the same way that most English speakers have totally divorced the dogs and chickens from air combat, we can't ascribe too much poetry to the combination of individual kanji characters. But regardless, it is there. And the characterizations, or way of considering, the zeitgeist of air combat at it's naming portray something of the culture in which they were coined.

The Japanese were engaged in a rebellion game from a long virtuous room. The Germans were dancing in the sky, mixing hands, in lighting war (you can almost hear the Flight of the Valkyries playing). And it's so familiar to us, but taken in the context of the axis nations' considerations of air combat, the allied notions of dogfighting from a cockpit sound very blue collar. The question then becomes, which characterization is the most appropriate? And did that language (or the way of considering things that created the language) influence how effectively the weapons were used? Mixed metaphor or not, my suggestion is that it did.

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