semolina

This is a word from my childhood.

Not because we ate semolina pudding, or couscous made from semolina, or because I was aware of the spaghetti we ate having been made from semolina. No, it’s because I grew up listening to The Beatles, and the first Beatles album I owned myself (as opposed to belonging to my brother or parents) was Magical Mystery Tour. On that album is “I Am the Walrus.” If you give it a listen (you really should, and watch the video), you will hear, at about 2:53, “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.”

When I, less then ten years of age, heard that, I assumed Semolina Pilchard was the name of a girl. Why not? Serena Pritchard or Selma Pilcher would be. I had never heard of semolina, nor of pilchards. Come on, I was growing up in the Alberta foothills in the 1970s! Semolina Pilchard seemed to me to be a name to go with Semilema Tina. You know, from “Ferrajocka.” That actually turned out to be “sonnez la matine” from “Frère Jacques.” But for a while it made sense to me, and from the same song I also had the idea there was a word “donlayvoo,” which seemed to be something like an escalator and/or vaccum cleaner.

But hey. Songs often come through the ear to the mind like grains of wheat halfway through the grinding process. Which is what semolina is. And that’s why I assumed for some time that semolina was formed from Latin semi ‘half’ and molina ‘mill’. Doesn’t that make sense? Why grind your way through all the etymology if you can take some nice bits and make a pleasing porridge of them?

Actually semolina comes from Italian semolino, diminutive of semola ‘bran’, which in turn comes from Latin simila ‘flour’. There do seem to be some similar words out there, yes, but similis ‘like’ is a different root. Well, grind them down and they may start to assimilate. I just now told my wife I was writing on semolina and she said, “The flower?” And I said, “No, the – oh, yes,” and realized she had actually said “The flour?” Which would have been the logical thing for me to hear in the first place.

John Lennon wrote “I Am the Walrus” with the express purpose of confounding literary analysis. A student had written to him that his teacher was having the class analyze the lyrics of Beatles songs. So he went out of his way to make it impenetrable. My experience suggests he needn’t have tried so hard.

3 responses to “semolina

  1. This excerpt, from a book by John Lennon’s boyhood chum, explains the origin of the song, along with a reference to the “semolina pilchard” line:

    http://www.beatlesagain.com/breflib/iatw.html

    This excerpt is from Pete Shotton’s excellent book ‘The Beatles, Lennon And Me’ (originally published as “John Lennon In My Life”, 1983, Stein and Day Publishers… not to be confused with “In My Life – John Lennon Remembered” by Kevin Howlett and Mark Lewisohn).

    (If you’re not familiar, Pete Shotton was Lennon’s closest boyhood pal, an original member of the Quarrymen (until John broke the washboard over Pete’s head!), and a close friend and confidant of John’s to the very end.)

    From page 217:

    One afternoon, while taking “lucky dips” into the day’s sack of fan mail, John, much to both our amusement, chanced to pull out a letter from a student at Quarry Bank. Following the usual expressions of adoration, this lad revealed that his literature master was playing Beatles songs in class; after the boys all took their turns analyzing the lyrics, the teacher would weigh in with his own interpretation of what the Beatles were really talking about. (This, of course, was the same institution of learning whose headmaster had summed up young Lennon’s prospects with the words: “This boy is bound to fail.”)

    John and I howled in laughter over the absurdity of it all. “Pete,” he said, “what’s that ‘Dead Dog’s Eye’ song we used to sing when we were at Quarry Bank?” I thought for a moment and it all came back to me:

    Yellow matter custard, green slop pie,
    All mixed together with a dead dog’s eye,
    Slap it on a butty, ten foot thick,
    Then wash it all down with a cup of cold sick.

    “That’s it!” said John. “Fantastic!” He found a pen, commenced scribbling: “Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye….” Such was the genisis of “I Am the Walrus” (The Walrus itself was to materialize later, almost literally stepping out of a page in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’)

    Inspired by the picture of that Quarry Bank literature master pontificating about the symbolism of Lennon-McCartney, John threw in the most ludicrous images his imagination could conjure. He thought of “semolina” (an insipid pudding we’d been forced to eat as kids) and “pilchard” (a sardine we often fed to our cats). Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower….,” John intoned, writing it down with considerable relish.

    He turned to me, smiling. “let the f*ckers work THAT one out, Pete.”

  2. Pingback: pilchard | Sesquiotica

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