Poet with a Wow Factor

Daily Mail (London), January 6, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Poet with a Wow Factor


Byline: Compiled by Charles Legge

QUESTION A friend once told me Robert Burns used the modernsounding term 'Wow!' in one of his poems. Is this true? THE exclamation far predates Burns. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is a word of Scottish origin that first appeared in literature in 1513.

It was an onomatopoeic word variously expressing aversion, surprise or admiration, sorrow or commiseration, much as it does today. The dictionary cites a reference from Gavin Douglas's acclaimed Scots translation of Virgil's Aeneid: Aeneis VI. Prol. 19: 'Out on thir wanderand spiritis, Wow! thow cryis.' There may be a much earlier reference. In the early part of the 15th century, James I of Scotland (1394-1437) is thought to have written the humorous poem Peblis To The Play, having enjoyed the Beltane festival at Peebles.

This includes: 'Ane winklot fell and hir taill, Wow! quod malkin hyd.' It means something along the lines of: 'One wench fell on her backside, Wow! How that crone howled.' But the poem's authorship is disputed and it may date from the 16th century.

Andrew Walton, Kippax, W. Yorks. THE word 'Wow!' can be found in Tam O' Shanter: A Tale written in 1790 and considered by many to be Burns's greatest work.

The expression appears towards the end of the centre part of this epic narrative poem, in the scene where Tam, a drunken farmer making his way home through Alloway on a wild night, sees lights in the derelict, and supposedly haunted, Alloway Kirk, and goes to investigate, despite the reluctance of his mare, Maggie. Burns writes: 'But Maggie stood, right sair astonished Till wi' the heel and hand admonished She ventured forward on the light and Wow! Tam saw an unco sight! Warlocks and witches in a dance Nae cotillion brent-new frae France.' This is followed by a description of the wild dance of the coven members, led by Satan acting as piper, and culminating in the witches spotting Tam and Maggie lurking in the shadows and pursuing them to the bridge, at which point Maggie loses her tail to a last-second lunge by a witch's hand, but manages to escape the chasing coven and bear Tam off safely.

David Yule, Bellshill, Lanarkshire.

QUESTION What is the story of USS Salem, the ship that played the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in the film The Battle Of The River Plate? THE USS SALEM was one of three Des Moines class cruisers, the last -- and largest -- conventional gunarmed heavy cruisers built for the U.S. Navy.

When World War II broke out in 1939, the U.S. Navy immediately began the design of a heavy cruiser -- the Baltimore class -- free of the limitations on such designs that had been written into the Washington and London Treaties.

The result was a cruiser about 60 per cent bigger than preceding 'Treaty cruisers', armed with nine 8in guns, 12 5in guns and multiple light anti-aircraft guns. However, being commissioned in 1948 to 1949, they were in effect 'ready for the last war' and were obsolescent.

The three ships in the class had widely differing fates. The name ship, Des Moines, served mainly in the Mediterranean and was decommissioned in 1959 (though not scrapped until 2007).

Newport News, the second of the trio, had an active life. She blockaded Cuba in the 1962 Missile Crisis and took an active part in verification of the withdrawal of Soviet missiles at the end of the stand- off.

From 1967 to 1972, she served three detachments to Vietnam, distinguishing herself in a shore bombardment role. Perhaps because of this history, Newport News was the last of the heavy cruisers to be formally taken out of commission.

USS Salem had a less eventful life. Built at Bethlehem Steel's Quincy Fore River Shipyard, she was launched in September 1946, commissioned in May 1949 and decommissioned in January 1959.

Through this (almost) ten-year commission she served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets.

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