Daily Archives: November 14, 2008

mêlée

A mellifluous word, like a stream-smoothed pebble, that exists to prove that anything, shouted with enough guttural force, spit and testosterone, can be violent. The twisting arc of a body swinging a broadsword – is this not, too, the feeling of mêlée? If you may lay your enemy about and asunder with lashings of mace in malice, why not do so with a word you can sing while you swing? Or would that be too male, eh? But there are hints when you look at the word: those diacritics, arched like angry eyebrows or perhaps perched like helmets or carried like rucksaks and rifles. But why is that circumflex there? In French – the immediate source, of course – it always attests to an absence of s: so meslee, which in turn comes from Latin misculatus, “mixed.” And with that word we hear the military cutlery clashing and slicing. How those edges have blunted and polished over the centuries! Other words have come down, too, as the s has alternated with l and d: meddle is a killing cousin, but a sibling is medley, which first meant the mixing of forces in combat. Now it brings to mind music. So death is bookended with melody: the trumpets sound at the start of the battle, mêlée, mêlée; at the end, by the bleeding field, the birds reply, medley, medley.