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Lizzie Hibbert: 'Words' Traces'

Published on 5th December 2019
Lizzie, Emma and Anna, Berkeley, CA, 17/09/17. Photograph by Libby Rainey.

 How can we ever explain what new words mean? If we can only define them through reference to old ones, then new meanings must always elude us. Yet words contain multitudes beyond the linguistic. New words can hold hundreds of pasts. Take, for example, the word ‘choff.’ While a dictionary definition of the verb ‘to choff’ might be ‘to eat greedily,’ this would not convey the full force of its meaning. To understand, you need some examples.

 Picture these scenes. Two dark-haired women in woollen scarves and leather gloves are queuing for a second lunch on an ice-glazed east Berlin street, hopping from foot to foot with plumes of frozen breath in front of their faces and curry-ketchup around their mouths. Now they are sitting at a doily-covered mahogany table in a rented Haussmann apartment in the 16th Arrondissement; one of them is shovelling a panful of cheese into the belly of a table-top raclette grill while the other eyes the bavette sizzling on its hotplate and pops open a huge jar of cornichons. Now, reclined with their feet on balcony railings, the same two women are staring out at the Pacific Ocean from a double-king suite in an out-of-season Oregon hotel. Between them is the eviscerated carcass of the ‘Ray’s Food Place’ rotisserie chicken they have just finished eating with their fingers. These are all scenes of choffing: of diving head first into eating and barely coming up for breath.

***

 This is really an essay about my best friend Anna. I learnt the word ‘choff’ from her this summer, but she believes she learnt it from me.

 We were sitting one evening in a square in Marseille beneath a Kronenbourg-branded umbrella. I was in the sunshine and Anna in the shade. On the table we had laid our phones face-down beside water-warped paperbacks, and a waitress had just set two tall glasses of pastis down by an ashtray of salty crisps. Pastis is the provençal sister of sambuca. Mixed with iced water, it turns into a soapy, yellow-milky apéritif that Anna likes very much and I tolerate. Sipping our second glasses, we were arguing about what to have for dinner, as we have been for almost six years.

 The sun, slipping lower behind terracotta roofs and the distant sailing masts of the Vieux Port, told us that it was getting late. We had taken the train that morning to the Calanque de Sugiton where we swam in the bay until our eyes stung, which set us a couple of hours behind our usual holiday schedule. At length we concluded that neither of us was hungry enough to warrant a restaurant bill and that we should therefore go back to our apartment to drink more pastis over snacks from the Monoprix apéro aisle. Anna licked her lips and I gritted my teeth: we downed what was left in our glasses and rose from the table to leave.

 “It does seem a shame,” said Anna, as she scraped her metal chair back across the stone, “but I definitely couldn’t manage a proper meal after choffing that baguette a few hours ago.”

 The word drew my attention away from the dry swirl of seasalt I had been inspecting on my burnt right thigh. For a moment we stood behind our chairs and blinked at each other. Was ‘choff’ a word I had heard before? I didn’t think so. In fact, I was fairly sure that it didn’t exist. I narrowed my eyes and Anna rolled hers: pedant and long-suffering foil.

 “Sorry,” I answered, as if I hadn’t heard her, “you said you did what to that baguette?”

 Anna held one hand palm-up at the obviousness of her statement and replied “I said I choffed it!” with plain exasperation. “I was really hungry and I choffed it all down in one go!”

 “Right…” I nodded. I tucked my chair under the table and stepped around to meet her, “you choffed it.” As we began to make our way across the cobbles I wondered how to word my pedantry with tact. She could tell what I was doing. Next to me, I sensed her bracing herself in readiness to be annoyed.

 I wanted to let it slide but I just couldn’t help myself. After a moment I hazarded to delicately ask whether she had, by any chance, in fact meant to say the word ‘scoff.’

 Anna appealed to the heavens in irritation. “No! I mean choff! You know, to choff something!” She held a huge invisible baguette in both hands and mimed eating it with annoyed frenzy, “I choffed it!”

 “Alright, alright!” I held my hands up in surrender. “I just don’t think I’ve ever heard that word before, that’s all.” Silence.

 Anna looked at me in honest bafflement, then shook her head and laughed. “I’ve heard you use that word before!” she told me, as we got back into step with one another and rounded the graffitied corner of our street, “I got it from you and your mum when I was in Manchester.”

 This threw me. I was sure that I had never heard the word ‘choff’ before in my life, let alone said it myself, yet Anna was equally sure of the opposite. We let ourselves into the apartment and poured another glass of pastis over which to retrace our steps.

 What turned out to have happened is this. Anna had visited me the previous summer when I was living with my mother in Manchester. One day, she had asked why we gave our labrador her dinner in a maze-shaped bowl. We explained that Molly used to eat so greedily that she would trough her food down in one go and be sick, so we had had to buy a bowl that would force her to eat more slowly. This bowl, we told her, made it impossible to trough.

 Thinking back, I remembered Anna delighting in the word ‘trough,’ saying that she had never heard it before, which had surprised me. Of course, she had heard the word ‘trough,’ hundreds of times. But that was not what she had thought we were saying. I come from a southern suburb of Manchester and speak with an accent somewhere between Mancunian and Potteries. A Northern-Irish teacher at my school once remarked that a Cheshire accent means “pronouncing as few syllables as humanly possible.” We mash consonants together so that ‘dream’ comes out as “jeam” and elide all our vowels to turn ‘brilliant’ into “brullyunt.” I went to school in a town called Wilmslow, but everyone there calls it “Wumslow.” Anna was right: I had pronounced ‘trough’ as “choff.”

 So that previous summer Anna had heard my mother and me use this alien word with confident ease and presumed it to be a piece of northern slang she had never encountered. She took it happily back home to Cambridge and began to use it liberally. By the time she realised, one year later, that it had been a nonsense collection of sounds based on mispronunciation and mishearing, ‘choff’ had already become a word in its own right

 ‘Choff’ means something slightly different from ‘scoff’ or ‘trough,’ because it connotes a single-minded obliviousness in the process of manic consumption. When you choff something it goes down so quickly that you hardly even taste it, but you are also blind to that speed and believe yourself to be eating normally. There is no other word for that kind of frenzied devouring than ‘choffing.’ For this reason, Anna decided that she would keep saying ‘choff.’ In any case, she said, it had begun to catch on among friends in Cambridge.

 Most English words have incredibly deep and rich etymologies which stretch across millennia in time and oceans in space. Our history is written up on our language. ‘Eat,’ for example, is the modern form of the Old English verb etan, derived from the Proto-Germanic languages brought across the North Sea by the earliest migrants to these islands. ‘Scoff’ used to be scaff, which sprang from opaque origins in the nineteenth century but seems connected to the Dutch schoften, since ‘scoff’ exists, too, in Afrikaans. While variants of ‘trough’ from the Old Saxon trog have existed in English for around fifteen hundred years, it has only been used colloquially, as a verb, since the eighteenth century.

 ‘Choff’ was born in a moment in my mother’s kitchen in 2018.

 The truth, of course, is that this is how all language spreads: great linguistic tides start life as tiny ripples in everyday speech. All of our turns of phrase, our gestures and our sayings leave a trace on the people with whom we share them, which they, in turn, pass on to others. Words stick to people like seasalt after swimming.

 The happiest time of my life was the month I spent driving with Anna in America. I traversed three states over one thousand miles, then came home with her London accent.

***

 A curious aspect of the trough-choff confusion is that my mother, who is not from Cheshire, also seemed to Anna to be saying ‘choff.’ My mother was born in Leeds in 1961 and moved to Manchester for university when she was 18. She spent the 1980s in Stockport, then moved with my father down to the Cheshire suburbs just before my brother’s birth in 1992. After her Cheshire-born children had left home and her Mancunian husband died, she tried to move to North Yorkshire in 2015 but came almost immediately back. That side of the Pennines was no longer her home. She lives in a redbrick terrace in Chorlton now and speaks with a quasi-North-Western accent.

 Yet traces of a Yorkshire childhood lie close to the surface. Shortly after she moved into that house, she told me that there was a parade round the corner with a Co-op, a butcher’s and some “shops full of shmatties.” The scene that ensued was an astonishing precursor to the conversation between me and Anna a year later in Marseille. When I told her that I had never heard the word ‘shmatty’ before she rolled her eyes like Anna would in the future and replied “don’t be daft, Lizzie, of course you have. I say it all the time; it just means ‘tat’, like souvenirs or knick-knacks.”

 Perhaps I had heard it and forgotten it. In any case, it did not take much googling to discover that ‘shmatty,’ like ‘choff,’ does not exist. The word shmatte, however, does. It is the Yiddish for ‘rag,’ from the Polish szmata, and refers more broadly to any piece of fabric or clothing considered worn or shabby. This is the word that my mother’s grandparents must have used. Then on some branch of our family tree, transmuted through a West Yorkshire accent, shmatte had morphed into ‘shmatty.’ It lost all associations of fabric or clothing, and came at last to mean anything cheap.

 My mother was thirteen years old when she lost her Jewish father, and with him she lost half of herself. But she kept the word ‘shmatty.’ She still could not tell you exactly where her “naturalised” grandparents came from, but she has known since she was a child that the “stone” in her surname was once “stein.” It has been many years now since my mother set foot in a Synagogue. But while Baruch ata Adanoi is not in her vocabulary, schmaltzy, schlep and chutzpah are. They sit there comfortably alongside ginnel, spuggy, breadcake and gip, and they are a part of her.

 ‘Shmatty,’ to me, is the most precious of these words, because it is as Yorkshire as it is Yiddish. It belongs as much to a family named Stone as it once did to a family named Stein. That word is a link to all of my mother’s former selves and to all of her former family. She speaks them into being each time she uses it.

 In this way words can resurrect the dead, and the dead can leave us surprises in the words they leave behind.

 My father went through life curating a collection of sayings out of fragments of conversations, films and songs. Those snatches of sound swam around his head and made daily outings, whether slipped into conversation or hummed to himself as he brewed pots of tea. Whenever anybody sneezed he quoted my grandfather shouting “nobody buy the sprouts!” to a bemused Marks and Spencers on account of a woman in the 1990s with ’flu in the vegetable aisle. After we saw Henry V at the Royal Exchange in 2007 he spent months popping his head around doors crying “God for Harry, England and Saint George!” He sought funny quotations from reality TV like a prospector panning for gold.

 As long as I knew him, when he stretched himself out after a long day at work, he would roll his neck on his shoulders and say “ooh,” then crack his knuckles in front of him saying “ahh.” When he crossed an arm in front of his chest he would say “ooh” again, then reach the other behind his back with an “ahh.” He would finally sit heavily down on the sofa and repeat himself, but now “ooh… ahh… can…to…na.” Sometimes my brother and I would join in, singing “ooh ahh can to na,” and he would call back “I said: ooh ahh can to na!”

 I had never heard of Eric Cantona.

 Ken Loach’s football-fantasy comedy-drama, Looking for Eric, was released in cinemas the month after my father died. I was sitting one day in the house that still smelt of him, when the television set lit up with a trailer scored to tens of thousands of fans in Old Trafford chanting “Ooh! Ah! Cantona!” The feeling was something like falling. What I had believed to be a collection of nonsense sounds, just another eccentricity dreamt up by my father, had been a reference to a time, a place, and a famous man he had shared with a generation of other people. I wondered whether he had been there in the stadium, then. I doubt it. How can I know?

 My father’s words bore the trace of an event I had had no idea had ever occurred. That trace separated from the point of its origin to crystallise into something new in his vocabulary, whence I dug it up without context. Robert Macfarlane has written of this phenomenon, of how ‘[w]e all carry trace fossils within us’ in the ‘marks that the dead and the missed leave behind.’ How many fossils am I carrying inside me, in the words, tunes and gestures he taught me? ‘Trace fossils,’ Macfarlane tells us, are formed when ‘the mark-maker has disappeared but the mark remains.’ My father’s name, incidentally, was Mark.

 Marks, tucked into drawers and my memory: a 1974 school planner with MUFC LOYAL SUPPORTERS in blue parker-pen ink; LATIN TRANS. THURSDAY and BELLE VUE SPEEDWAY. Unintelligible scribbles in the margins of The Iliad; mustard-yellow spines of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack; Marlboro ash in the upholstery of an Audi A4. The shape of my knuckles, the sound of my voice. I hum fragments of songs I have never heard first-hand, remember scenes from films I have yet to see. I had been doing unknowing impressions of Geoffrey Boycott and Tony Greig since long before I saw my first cricket match. I say “it’ll be right” instead of alright, like him, but I could not tell you why.

 My father left behind him a long trail of breadcrumbs, and here I still am, picking them up. But I learnt long ago that they will not lead me to him, that the trail in the woods never ends. Sometimes I feel as though I might be getting closer, but he has always slipped just out of view, round the corner.

 The words we use bear traces of every place we have ever been, every self we have ever inhabited, and every person we have ever loved. But they cannot take us back there. We cannot keep track of the breadcrumbs we drop.

***

 Imagine with me for a moment a friend of Anna’s in Cambridge. I have never met him. After graduation he and Anna will lose touch. He has started saying ‘choff’ but has forgotten where he heard it. It is not a word he will use often, but one day he will say it to daughter as a joke. It is a silly, onomatopoeic word and it will make her laugh. She will grow up, and he will die, and that word will remain with her as a trace of another time, when her father was alive and cross at her for choffing down her dinner too quickly. Out of love for her father she will pass it on to her children and grandchildren. For them it will be an old-fashioned word that their granny used to say, a word from another time, or home.

 And it will all be because years ago Anna and I loved each other. Bone of our bones; flesh of our flesh. The words we coin are the things we bring into the world together: made of us, but separate too.

 ‘Choff’ will carry on existing because two eighteen-year-old girls with two different accents met each other in a corridor in 2013. For three years they lived under the same roof, ate at the same tables and danced at the same parties, then they spent the rest of their lives driving cars, catching trains and booking flights to go and visit each other. They told each other all of the worst things they had ever done and felt, and they saved all their best stories and secrets for each other. They choffed currywurst in Berlin and raclette in Paris, then a whole rotisserie chicken on the Oregon coast. 

 In a square in Marseille in 2019, these two once-girls, now women, discovered the word ‘choff’ in the failing sunlight. ‘Choff’ is a trace of that untraceable moment, of something that was real but had to end. We cast traces of ourselves off whenever we speak. Words are marks that remain, so mean them.

Lizzie Hibbertis a second-year PhD student in the English Department at King's, writing about deep time and narrative fiction between the wars.



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