Day 182: Damn girl

Under the definition for allured, adj., the OED cites the following example:


I decided to look up the passage mostly because I wanted to know who it was, exactly, whose looks had trapped the wary Tritons and whose voices had drawn allured dolphins from their native depths. I suspected it was the Sirens, but then, perhaps it was some other kind of watery nymph—nereids, perhaps, or just some common or garden mermaids.

You’ll notice that I assumed the alluring object would turn out to be feminine, which is, I think, a rational assumption given the culture we live in. An aquatic creature whose physical features entice others is generally characterized as feminine. A notable recent exception is the creature in The Shape of Water; indeed, the film draws attention to the exceptionality of this gendering in the very first line of dialogue that is spoken to Elisa, the film’s protagonist: “Did the sirens wake you up?”

The sirens of myth are more famous, of course, for lulling their listeners (“go to sleep you little baby,” they croon in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) into what is inevitably, a false sense of security.

For this is generally the other prevailing feature of an alluring aquatic creature: she is dangerous.

Sometimes it takes a child to spell this out for you.

Maybe six months ago, the younger was lying on her bed flipping through a book she loves called Beastworld: Terrifying Monsters and Mythical Beasts. Every page is devoted to a different mythological monster—so there is one page devoted to the yeti, another to the werewolf, another to vampires, and so on.

Suddenly she exclaimed, “Oh, this is the page of women who tempt men to their death!”

“Wait, it’s the what page?” I asked.

“They tempt men with their beauty and then they kill them,” she explained matter-of-factly.

When I looked at the page I found that it had a picture of the sirens, with whom so far as I knew, the younger was not previously acquainted.

sirens page

Since this was before the younger could really read (her reading skills have accelerated from zero to sixty in the last six months), I was curious to know how she had arrived at the conclusion that this was the page of women who tempt men with their beauty and then kill them. I mean, yes, the pile of skulls is a clue; but the depicted Sirens also don’t look terribly alluring.

So I asked her.

Pirates of the Caribbean,” she answered immediately.

There aren’t any sirens in Pirates of the Carribean, but there are mermaids who feature prominently in the second movie, On Stranger Tides. 

Now, these are no little mermaids. No, they are all grown up, and I remembered, then, that when we had watched the one featuring these voluptuous killer mermaids, the younger had asked curiously, and quite reasonably, “why are mermaids always sexy AND dangerous?”

Why indeed.

The association is built-in to the very concept of what it means to be alluring. The word allure comes from aleurir meaning to lure a hawk—not with food, but with a contraption made of feathers tied to a cord—that mimics their favorite quarry.

Something that allures, in other words, is both attractive and deceptive. It allows the perceiver to believe itself the pursuer in order to entrap it.

But I’ve gotten distracted, just like a dolphin with ADHD. Killer mermaids will do that.

What I was trying to tell you is that I wanted to look up the lines from the poem called “Moonlight,” so that I could confirm exactly who it was whose looks trapped the Tritons and whose voices allured those distractible dolphins, and whether it was in fact the female of the species.

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t find the lines. I could find the poem—the very edition that seemed to be cited, from 1814, but it did not contain those lines. See for yourself.

I looked hard, and eventually enlisted others (Dr. Lake, that wrangler of Tupperware drawers, literal and figurative, and La Bonavita, he who had previously solved, seemingly effortlessly, the mystery of “lights for cats!”) in the search. We combed the internet so thoroughly that I was forced to admit defeat and, in desperation, emailed one of the etymologists at the OED, whose email address, yes, I happened to have on hand for lexicographical emergencies such as this and, no, I don’t think that’s odd.

When, after a few days, I still had not received a reply, part of me became fully convinced that the reason for the delay was that the entire staff of the OED was on emergency duty working around the clock to hastily cobble together a James-Macpherson-style-fake poem from which these lines could plausibly have come, because they knew that I had caught them red-handed and that these lines did not exist anywhere except for in this entry in the OED.

Because the more I thought about it, the fishier those lines seemed.

  1. Would the Tritons really have been trapped by the Sirens’ or mermaids’ or some other water nymphs’ looks? Wouldn’t the Tritons be wise to them? Aren’t they basically all related? (Although, in that case, perhaps it is an all-the-more-potent allure for being slightly transgressive, like being attracted to your hot cousin, so … never mind.)
  2. Dolphins are also canny, as we already know. Surely they wouldn’t be allured out of their depths by singing. And can dolphins even hear underwater? Thurlow’s lines clearly imply that the dolphins were underwater when they (supposedly) heard the singing, rather than, for example, poking their noses out adorably and listening from above the surface. No, the dolphins were clearly fully underwater because the voices allured them from their native depths. But is it even physically possible for a dolphin (or any other creature, for that matter) underwater to hear a song being sung, presumably, above the water, since sirens and mermaids are generally depicted singing while perched elegantly on uncomfortable looking rocks?

For help I turned one again to my number one source for aquatic questions by virtue of her name, Dr. Lake, who drew my attention to several interesting articles in the proceedings of the Royal Society.

Reader, the articles showed that, at least in the eighteenth century, I would not have been alone in pondering these questions.

In 1748, Mr. William Arderon committed several thoughts to print “concerning the hearing of fish,” (in which category he includes dolphins—he’s from the eighteenth century, cut him some slack!). After performing several frankly dubious sounding “experiments” including one in which he made people strip off and go under water and try to hear what he was saying, he arrives at the conclusion that fish, including dolphins, can not hear under water.

naked experiment

Other sources, however, indignantly refuted this thesis, noting the weakness of some of the evidence upon which fishes’ presumed deafness and muteness was said to rest:

mute as a fish copy

This source also contests the hypothesis that the medium of water is incapable of transmitting sound and argues, on the contrary, that if fish are unable to hear, it is due to a lack of ears, and through no deficiency of the watery medium.

Royal Society 2 conclusion

Still other accounts lent credence to my suspicion that it’s dolphins who are likely to be the perpetrators and not the victims of such sonorous manipulations: “They will leave three Days out of the Water, during which time they sigh in so mournful a manner as to affect those with Concern, who are not used to hearing them.”

affect those with concern

But other reports appeared to corroborate the poem’s implication that dolphins are suckers for a haunting melody:


And then here was Buffon, who likewise supports the view that dolphins are easily lured: “their too eager pursuit after prey occasionally, however, exposes them to danger, as they will sometimes follow the object of their pursuit even into the nets of the fishermen.”

By the time I had waded deep into these murky depths and finally resurfaced, I discovered the lexicographer at the OED had written me back with a definitive source for the quotation. I have to admit that my pleasure at discovering the quote’s source was almost canceled out by the disappointment of being divested of my fond daydream that the OED‘s crack team of lexicographers had been burning the midnight oil concocting a plausibly nineteenth-century poem.

The lines, it turns out, are from a poem called “Angelica; or the Rape of Proteus” published in a different 1814 collection titled Moonlight. Moreover, the lines are taken from a stanza that Thurlow had rewritten, so they are especially obscure. (The whole poem as well as the re-written stanzas are available on the database Literature Online. I haven’t read the whole poem, and don’t have much interest in doing so; Thurlow describes the poem as “carried on from the Tempest of Shak-speare,” (it was crying out for a sequel!), “only, the name of Miranda is changed into Angelica,” just to keep things interesting. The plot involves Proteus trying to rape Angelica (i.e. Miranda) and eventually being foiled by Neptune and Amphitrite.)

Maddeningly, the discovery of the source didn’t resolve the mystery. Here are the lines that immediately precede and follow the lines cited in the OED‘s entry:

Yet have I seen the wonders of our globe,
Oft passing to their hymeneal beds,
When Summer smooth’d the seas; whose looks have trapt
The wary Tritons, and their voices drawn
Th’ allured dolphins from their native depths.
And yet I lov’d not; lov’d not, ’till I saw
Angelica, thou merely mortal foe,
Yet more, than thrice celestial to my soul!

The final lines are clear enough, but the first three are not particularly helpful in clarifying who it is, exactly, whose looks have trapped the wary Tritons and whose voices have drawn the allured dolphins. After puzzling over the lines for some time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the sentiment being expressed is the nineteenth-century equivalent of this:

I’ve been around the world
Seen a million honeys
Really special girls
Gave all my time and money
But, there’s something ’bout ya
Something that’s kinda funny
It’s what you do to me, aw

(From “Damn Girl” by our very own twenty-first-century Edward Thurlow, Justin Timberlake). In which case, it’s no special siren or mermaid who traps those Tritons and allures those dolphins. No, it’s all women, everywhere.




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