Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why Is There a Silent "l" in "Malcolm?

    In Alaska and the Yukon, I noticed, they have, to put it politely, an idiosyncratic attitude towards spelling. When I asked the attendant at a local museum in Skagway why the cattle yoke was labeled a "yolk", she replied, "That's how it's spelt", with the nonchalant tone of one who can't imagine why anyone would want such self-evident information. And who was the Malcom So-and-So who donated the old telephone. He was an elderly resident of the district. Is that how he spells his name? "Yes," she replied, as if to ask: Why would you ever imagine anything different?
    Well, he is an exception to the rule. Most of us Malcolms are rather sensitive to strangers leaving out the second, silent "l" in our name. It could be worse, of course. My wife, Esther objects to being called Ester, as if she were a chemical, or Esta, or Estelle, or Easter or, in one notorious case, Eisthe.
    But it nevertheless begs the question: why does the name contain a second "l" if it is not pronounced? Essentially, because it was once longer. In the Domesday Book of 1086 it is recorded as "Malcolum", and I presume that was also how the contemporary Scottish king spelled his name. Even then, Scotland was divided between the English speaking Lowlands and the Gaelic speaking Highlands. The original Gaelic form was Máel Coluim, and is now Maol Choluim.
    The first part represents the Gaelic word for "bald". (It also occurs in the Mull of Kintyre, the Mull of Oa, and the Mull of Galloway, all of which are "bald" ie treeless, headlands.) However it had a secondary meaning of "slave", because the Irish slaves were shaved on one side of the head. Not doubt St Patrick bore this tonsure when he served as a slave in Ireland. The Irish priests therefore adopted the same tonsure as a symbol of the their servitude to God and the people. In fact, it was to become an issue between the Celtic missionaries to England and the Roman missionaries, who were tonsured in the form of a crown of thorns. The word therefore developed the tertiary meaning of "priest".
    The second part refers to St Columba (521-597), the Apostle to Scotland. An Irish prince, he copied a book by hand, and was outraged when a court awarded the copy to the monastery which owned the original. Indeed, he was so outraged that he took a band of armed followers, and reclaimed the book after a bloody fight. Afterwards, repenting, and faced with the threat of excommunication, he agreed to go into exile, vowing never to return until he had won as many men to salvation as had perished in the battle. As it turned out, he went further, establishing the great monastery at Iona, and for more than thirty years tramping over the barbarian kingdoms of the Scots and Picts, converting thousands and laying the foundation of Christianity in Scotland.
    Thus, a priest who followed in his train was a Malcolum, a priest of Columba and, since the Celtic priests were, as often as not, married, the name was propagated. (Hence such other surnames as McPherson, "son of a parson" and McTaggart, "son of a priest".)
     No, I don't have any Scottish ancestry. I was called Malcolm, and my brother Warren, because our family name is Smith, and every Tom, Dick and Harry is called Smith.
     At least it is a noble name. But you would never guess it from watching the movies. In the 1986 Australian film, Malcolm the titular character is slightly mentally retarded, or at least, decidedly odd. In one of the Miss Marple movies, Malcolm is the name of the village idiot. Bumbling clowns were always the stock characters of Jerry Lewis, and in Hollywood or Bust, the nincompoop he played was called Malcolm Smith! You will look in vain for any cinematic depiction of any macho character, any hero, any wise elder - indeed, any positive character at all - named Malcolm. The film industry treats with contempt and derision a name that  four kings were once proud to bear.
    Obviously, we need another King Malcolm to restore the balance, and I shall raise the issue with Will and Kate when they come to dinner.