Tuesday, 2 March 2010


A word I greatly relish, as I do the thing, rivers in spate.

Today’s the 2nd March and, befittingly, the second day of spring, or so it feels. It especially feels it after weeks of cold, rain and wind. That rain is now in the rivers and pouring down the Thames between Hampton Court and Kingston. I can’t tell if the river is deeper than usual, or indeed if the depth ever varies much (it’s not tidal here); but it’s certainly faster and browner.

Come to think of it, why should a river ever get deeper? If more water comes into it, doesn’t it just go faster? I suppose if there’s a blockage and the water can’t get away -- for instance, if the bed at some point is too narrow or shallow -- then the depth will increase.

But supposing the water could get out to sea with no impediment, is there any limit to the speed that the water could flow to remove the influx? or is there a point where the water’s up against a speed limit and that’s when it gets deeper?

I like spate mainly, I think, because of those pictures illustrating February (’fill-dyke’) in those old calendars and children’s books of the month. It’s the thing, not the sound -- or rather a particular image of the thing. But maybe the sound, too: I suspect it calls to mind abate and perhaps late, both suggesting things running out. Etymology’s no help: spate -- origin obscure, first found C14; abate from O.French to do with battre, beat -- but the OED is flummoxed what the connection might be with the meaning of dwindle. Late -- straight Old English. It helps that I associate abate with weather in old novels: ‘the rain having abated we resumed our way to Dover’.

And is there something watery about sp_t? spit? (?spot) spout? I think so, and it’s often the case that particular combinations of letters or phonemes have a meaning. Can’t think of an example at the moment but I'll tell you when I do.

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