Canto (Should Be So Lucky)

On Saturdays since the beginning of the year over at the Waking Ambrose blog, Doug has been posting the latest installment of an epic poem on which he’s been working. Sometimes he does the reading, sometimes he asks one of his readers, family members, or other interested souls to read. Today (23 August 2008), it was our turn.

Now, it so happens that Doug has divided his opus into “cantos”, a word which means …

She: What’s that heavy breathing over there?

‘Scuse me a second.

He: Hard work. I’m websearching the word “canto”.

She: Canned toes? Are you looking for something new and different for breakfast?

Sheesh. Some people.

Where was I? Oh. Yeah. Canto. I read that it comes from the Latin word canere, “to sing”. Which does not mean that the ancient Romans recited poetry in a cannery. The acoustics in the average cannery are terrible. No way the Romans would have stood for it. People were thrown to the lions for less.

So, according to some people, canto means “song”. (I don’t think those Romans did any singing in a cannery, either.) Which makes sense, I guess. Most of the poetry with which folk are familiar these days does come with the singing on the radio or the iPod or the television. Well, we can count the television if we agree that most of what shows up on American Idol does not qualify as singing. Dog torture, maybe. Perhaps we can string these people up on a “cruelty to animals” charge.

Anyway. This “song” business is, I’m told, why poetry is divided up into bite-sized chunks called verses. Which may be how come most people have trouble reading poetry. They think it’s the enemy. One particular person of small Latin and less Greek, back a few years ago, misread verses as versus and came up with the idea of the “fight song”, now proudly played, and even sung (if the students should happen to know any of the words), during football games on college and university campuses throughout these Untied States.

The proposed derivation of canto from words meaning “song, singing” certainly seems plausible, and I’m sure that many men and women of great erudition will insist upon it. But I can’t help thinking that these many men and women have missed something. I reflect upon the deplorable financial condition of poets and musicians (OK, not Michael Jackson – but look what happened to him!). I look upon the construction of the word. And I see a veiled reference to an ancient means of protecting artists from economic disaster:

CANTO, adj.. Free of debt. Usually at someone else’s insistence.

How ancient? Consider the Torah (OK, Old Testament):

If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. – Exodus 22: 25 (NIV)

The idea that debt is A Bad Thing, and debt with interest A Worse Thing, thus applies far more broadly than the famously-improvident guilds of artists, writers and musicians, and appears in the foundation writing of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic (much of which is based on the Torah – yeah, that is ironic) traditions. In Iran, debt without usury (loaning at interest) is the law of the land.

What was that you said about your credit card, ye of the nation of In God We Trust?

I remember many years ago, when slot cars were all the rage in the northeastern United States. That was so long ago, flowers were still to be found in gardens, not on park benches in San Francisco. I had a very basic machine, one that wasn’t doing very well on the track, and was looking to upgrade.

Until I saw the prices. Way out of my price range. When I said so to the fellow running the slot car parlor, he responded:

That’s what credit cards are for.

I walked out of the place, never to return there (it went out of business shortly thereafter), never again to drive a slot car. I could not afford it, and would not – could not – be sucked into debt to do so.

If I had only continued to adhere to that principle, I would be a much happier man now.

Tell me again why We the People are so hacked off with Iran? Oh. Wait. Never mind.

   – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2008 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. Well, now, this was supposed to get me out of debt? In this case the history is this: It’s automockery for the pretentiousness of writing a western story about competing mythologies in verse. In order to be the first to make fun of me for audacity, I used the name Dante gave the segments of the Commedia.

  2. Well, I dunno, Doug. Could Dante sing?

    It’s the real deal, Polona. The Online Etymological Dictionary relates canto to Latin cantus, “chant”. I have just enough Latin to know that cantus is the form taken by the past participle of a verb; thus, the noun cantus “chant” = pp. cantus “to have sung”. Tracking back to the root verb yields cano, canere, “I sing”, “to sing”. Voilà!

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