Long ago, and far away, I had a thousand other blogs, all lost to the sands of time on the internet. Well, not lost per say, more abandoned as I realized I would not be able to faithfully shepard them along the winding roads of internet time. My goal was to consolidate here, hunkering down in the welcoming leaves of markdown and GitHub.

In the shuffle, however, I lost a blog I was most fond of, a simple “Word of the Day” or “For the Word”, or something along those lines. It was posts dedicated to a single word, a meditation on the wonderful acorns of knowledge and enshrined history that exist within a single word. And so, upon reading a word last night that fit the bill, I’d like to bring it back here. And so, without further ado…

Ribald

The impetus for blogging about this word can be traced back to a recent trip to Denton, TX to visit an old friend. While there, we saw the legendary performer Paul Slavens perform. He takes money from the audience and makes up songs on the spot based on song titles or themes they scribble on bar napkins.

Some estimates have him at more than 2,000 improvised songs in the last 20 years. So, needless to say, there are plenty of examples on YouTube. But, despite what you might see in the following video, it’s hard to capture his charm and wit that exists between songs; the real appeal and virtuoso.


Wikipedia says this about him,

“In the mid 90s Slavens began creating improvisational songs based on audience suggestions, and has created an estimated 2000 songs over the last 2 decades, many recordings exist, although few have been released. Often these songs are humorous in nature and can be quite ribald.”

And such was my (re)acquaintance with ribald. Without any objective definition, I knew precisely what this word meant. How is that possible? Moreover, can a definition ever replace this initial correlation of ribald that I now hold?

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein opens up with a quote from St. Augustine,

“The individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.”

But, interestingly, immediately begins to push against this idea, suggesting it’s a far too simplistic understanding of language, and by proxy, words. I think it’s safe to assume that Wittgenstein would support the idea that a word does not have a single meaning, but is actually given meaning from context, learning, and much more.

And so, returning to ribald, this word was perfectly defined for me through a personal experience and the persona of Paul Slavens. Now, sure, of course, I realize there is an agreed upon definition of ribald. From the venerable OED, for ribald as noun:

“1. a. In the medieval period: a person of low social status, esp. regarded as worthless or good-for-nothing; a rascal, vagabond. Also as a form of address. Now arch. or hist.

“2. A foul-mouthed or blasphemous person; one who uses offensive, irreverent, or scurrilous language; one who jeers or jokes in a rude or lewd way. Now rare.”

“3. A promiscuous or loose woman; a wanton, a harlot. Obs.”

“4. A wicked, dissolute, or licentious person; a villain. Now arch. and regional (Sc.).”

and so on, and so forth. Also from the OED, for ribald as adjective:

“1. Of a person or persons: (in early use) lewd, coarse, or licentious in language or behaviour; deliberately and offensively abusive or impious; (now usually in weakened sense) given to bawdy, vulgar, or irreverent talk or behaviour; amusingly rude.”

“2. Of language, humour, etc.: coarse, vulgar, scurrilous, irreverent; (subsequently esp.) referring to sexual matters in an amusingly rude or irreverent way. Now the most common sense.”

of which appears to be much more common.

So we have these definitions, and they are, unsurprinsgly, expansive to say the least. We love words like this; forged in the streets of pre-industrial London, tumbled around during the bawdy – notice the similar ‘ald’, ‘awd’ sounds, coincidence? – early 1900’s. And yet, with all that history and lyrical verse dedicated to this word, I meet it halfway with my intuited, pop-culture, internal definition.

It reminds me of work we’re doing with objects in digital repositories. There is a tension between front-ends that extract disconnected information from disparate sources, reconstituting client-side for a conceptual whole, vs. opinionated server-side models that pull some suggestions for stylings from here and there, but for the most part “push” or impell themselves through a series of pasta makers (I’m consciously choosing to move away from meat-based metaphors, you know, for the planet). The net effect is often the same to the unaware user, but the mechinations that move the system are fundamentally different in their approach. Both have pros and cons. And relevant to this discussion, there is very rarely an ideal state that adheres entirely to one philosophy or another. These systems we build and work with are muddy, confused over time, and contorted to work in the real word.

Much like words; those great and wonderful puzzles.

ps. all typos and mis-spellings are my own, no editing has been performed.