This has been a week for expanding the ol’ vocabulary, because I’ve been listening to the new album by The Decemberists on a constant loop—or as Colin Meloy might say, on a sempiternal picot.
While “The King is Dead” eschews the Dickensian whimsey and prog-rock grandiosity that characterized previous albums, Meloy is still a man in love with the rhythm and texture of the English language. These ten country-folk tunes are sprinkled with archaic linguistic nuggets.
Personally, I enjoy a band that forces me to get my Webster’s New World College Dictionary off the shelf with each new release, but for those gainfully employed fans who haven’t the time for such research, I hereby offer a reference guide, organized by song, that will allow you to decipher the new album. You’re welcome.
“Don’t Carry It All”
Archaic linguistic nugget: plinth
Can you use it in a sentence please?: “A monument to build beneath the arbors upon a plinth that towers towards the trees.”
Definition: “The square block at the base of a column, pedestal, etc.”
So, what’s he trying to say?: The song is a plea to “bear your neighbor’s burden,” so I think that spirit of cooperation is intended to be a figurative monument which, of course, needs a figurative foundation.
Archaic linguistic nugget: Andalusian
Can you use it in a sentence please?: “And the Andalusian tribes, setting the lay of Nebraska alight.”
Definition: “Of Andalusia (‘region of S. Spain on the Mediterranean & the Atlantic’), its people, or their language or culture.”
So, what’s he trying to say?: In an apocalyptic dream, he imagines the American heartland falling to the same fate as Rome, being sacked by the Vandals and/or Visigoths.
Archaic linguistic nugget: bonhomie
Can you use it in a sentence please?: “Hetty Green, queen of supply-side, bonhomie, bone-drab. (Know what I mean?)”
Definition: “Good nature; pleasant, affable manner; amiability.”
So, what’s he trying to say?: Well, Hetty Green was the most successful female investor of the Gilded Age, but with a nickname like “The Witch of Wall Street,” she wasn’t known for bonhomie. (“Well, it’s nonsense, isn’t it?” Meloy told NPR.)
Archaic linguistic nugget: loam
Can you use it in a sentence please?: “When you’ve receded into loam, and they’re picking at your bones.”
Definition: “A rich soil, composed of clay, sand and some organic matter.”
So, what’s he trying to say?: We’ll all be loam someday, folks.
“Rox in the Box”
Archaic linguistic nugget: lee
Can you use it in a sentence please?: “And it’s one, two, three, on the wrong side of the lee.”
Definition: “A sheltered place, esp. one on that side of anything away from the wind.”
So, what’s he trying to say?: You’re exposed to the elements, so get back in your place before you die, dummy.
“Down by the Water”
Archaic linguistic nugget: gabardine
Can you use it in a sentence please?: “All dolled up in gabardine, the last flash of Lita, pure 19.”
Definition: “A cloth of wool, cotton, rayon, etc. twilled on one side and having a fine, diagonal weave, used for suits, coats, dresses, etc.”
So, what’s he trying to say?: See, in the context of the lyrics of “America,” I’d always assumed the spy with the bow-tie camera was wearing a suit by some designer named Gabardine. Turns out it’s a fabric. Thanks, Decemberists!
Archaic linguistic nugget: panoply
Can you use it in a sentence please?: “And you were waking, and day was breaking, a panoply of song.”
Definition: “Any complete or magnificent covering or array.”
So, what’s he trying to say?: As the sun rises, the musical splendor of nature busts out all over.
Archaic linguistic nugget: nape
Can you use it in a sentence please?: “I could just grab you by the nape of your neck.”
Definition: “The back of the neck.”
So, what’s he trying to say?: OK, we’ve all heard the term “nape of the neck,” but as I was describing this song to my fiancee, she asked, “What is a nape, exactly?” And I wasn’t 100 percent sure. It turns out “nape of the neck” is redundant. Still: pretty song, no?