combine

Today I am tasting the noun combine, not the verb combine. You can hear the difference, right? As with many similar words that have noun and verb forms, the verb puts the stress on the last syllable, the noun on the first.

The noun combine isn’t all that familiar for many people; they may see combination or combo quite a lot, or (depending on where they are) combi or combie, but combine shows up mainly in farm country and legal country.

Farm country, as it happens, is what I was driving through on my way from Toronto to Collingwood on Saturday. We were making good time, almost to Collingwood, when we found ourselves stuck behind what at first appeared to be a funeral procession: a long line of cars moving at 20 to 30 km/h. Once we were on a stretch straight enough, we could see the cause: a large tractor hauling a large combine harvester. I mean large. It took up a lane and a half, even with its various parts swung up. So we cars had formed an involuntary combine in the trail of a cumbersome combine.

Combine was first a verb, coming from Latin for ‘yoke together’ or ‘join by two’. The oldest noun sense of combine is ‘combination’ but more particularly ‘conspiracy, plot’; that sense is not used anymore. But a closely related sense, of a joint effort by various persons to further their financial or political interests (often anti-competitive collusion), is current, and you can see it in occasional legal use. For instance, in 1986 in Canada the Competition Act replaced the Combines Investigation Act. I recall seeing that legal use of combines in my youth and having a mental image of investigating harvesters.

I grew up in rural and small-town southern Alberta, so of course the noun combine was familiar to me. It’s a machine that combs the wheat in the front, binds the straw and dumps bales off the back, and blows the grain out the side into a truck. Pretty nifty. The first combine harvester, it turns out, was invented in 1834. They’ve gotten bigger and more sophisticated in the intervening years, naturally. And they’re quite a valuable thing for a farmer. Which is an important fact in the amusing song by The Wurzels, “Combine Harvester”: “I’ve got a brand-new combine ’arvester, an’ I’ll give you the key…” (also a nice example of southwest England dialect, if you take the time to listen to the whole thing).

The word has a variety of tastes and overtones: comb and bind, of course, and combustion and many other words that have an elbow at mb (from camber to cumbersome and beyond, and in particular columbine), as well as carbine and perhaps carabiner. It uses all three key locations in the mouth: the back of the tongue [k], the lips [mb], and the tip of the tongue [n]; it uses all three kinds of stops we have in English: voiceless [k], voiced [b], and nasal [m] and [n].

All of which was suitable fodder for thought as we drove in that slow line behind the combine from Singhampton until it turned at Duntroon. That and the combinatorics of cars: How many different ways could the 20 cars in line be arranged? And, incidentally, how much food would be left when we finally got to the family Thanksgiving face-stuffing?

One response to “combine

  1. Regarding The Wurzels’ rendition, I prefer Melanie’s original version of “Brand New Key,” but once you get that song–any version–in your head, it’s impossible to shake loose. Annoying … just like getting stuck driving behind a combine.

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