Imagine a piece of music like a long thread being slowly unwound from an article of knitted clothing – just a little variation, but again the same, around and around, though you may feel a sense of tension building as the clothing disappears before your eyes. Revel in the tension! Why not? Did I not mention someone was wearing it? More and more is revealed, until at last it falls away abruptly…
Ah, yes, Boléro, by Maurice Ravel: in the musical canon unrivalled, like a garment being ravelled…
Wait – do I not mean unravelled? Well, ravelled, unravelled, either may be used. You see, unravel is not the antonym of ravel; actually, knit would be a better choice for that – as Shakespeare knew, and had his Macbeth say: “Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care.”
Now, how did these two apparently contradictory forms get tangled so, and the usual sense of opposition get undone? We may find some enlightenment in the origin of the word, which is no less entangled: in fact, early modern Dutch ravelen or rafelen meant “tangle, become confused” and “fray, come undone”.
How could it mean both – how could these senses cleave together rather than cleave apart? Not like the two senses of cleave, which come from two different origins that converged on one form. No, rather, the two meanings come from the tangled mess that threads that come undone or fray tend to end up in. In short, this is a word for the entropy of strings, threads, and fabric.
And why not have a fraying sense with a word that sounds rather like raffle and ruffle and riffle? But why add the un? Well, as an intensifier, perhaps – a redundancy of form seen in unloose, which, redundant though it may be, has been in the language consistently since the 1300s, or the more modern unthaw, first seen only around 1600. Or from the “tangle” sense of ravel gaining un, even as ravel had likewise the “come undone” sense. Either way, unravel has been in English almost as long as ravel has; ravel appeared in the mid-1500s, unravel in the early 1600s.
Anyway, why not have a paradox in a word that anagrams velar but has no velar sounds in it? And why not have a word relating to strings that resembles (it’s not the same; the pronunciations and origins are different) the name of an orchestral composer? True, Boléro wasn’t Ravel’s magnum opus (he once called it “a piece for orchestra without music”), but it may be his best known, and it resembles not only an unravelling but also another form of entropy: swirling around and circling into a centre of gravity (perhaps a black hole) until finally crashing into it. And, to quote athome.harvard.edu/programs/sst/, “strings and black holes have been found to be inextricably intertwined.” (They mean string theory, of course…)