Tuesday, September 05, 2006

treeful of starling

Hawksley Workman's new album title "Treeful of Starling" is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is the anarthrous use of treeful. Compare A Treeful of Pigs by Arnold Lobel.

The second is treeful itself. It's a lovely unit of measurement, quite vague but at the same time strangely intuitive, especially when applied to birds (as opposed to pigs). The -ful suffix is prolific in making adjectives, but rather unproductive when it comes to noun creation. We have handful, mouthful, spoonful, fistful, and armful. But then plateful, hatful, skinful, and houseful (all attested in the BNC) are stretching it a bit for me. Indeed, "handful of" is almost 70 times as common as "hand full of", while "houseful of" gets only 1/5th the hits that "house full of" gets.

Here, I think I expected "tree full of" rather than "treeful of", (compare, "a house empty of people" or "a sky void of stars"). But by selecting the unit of measurement, treeful, Workman has shifted attention to the next noun, starling. Appropriately, starling is treated here as an uncountable sense of the noun. Many nouns can be recruited into this role. Even for something as intuitively countable as pencil we can say, "with all this sharpening, I'm running out of pencil." This is especially common for food. It's appropriate here because when you measure the volume of something, it tends to be amorphous stuff rather than individual units. In other words, the tree is full of an undifferentiated mass of birdsong, fluttering wings, and dark metallic sheen rather than a bunch of individual starlings.

I did wonder if there could be a common uninflected plural of starling in the way that there is for fish, sheep or moose. Not according to any of the dictionaries I checked. The BNC also turns up only one instance of starling used this way. Notice, however, the plural s on the first instance, suggesting this is likely just a typo.
"bad spells are, every day, likely to be shorter. Blackbirds and starlings Where (sic) until two years ago, the scattering of currants near the door was eagerly awaited by a clamouring mix of blackbirds, starling, robins and a songthrush or two, lately there has been almost an indifference to the largesse. The birds are still around, but remain largely aloof in the bushes."
-The Alton Herald. Farnham, Surrey: Farnham Castle Newspapers Ltd, 1992,

Finally, *ful of x seems to be a fairly common frame for titles. We've already had Lobel's A Treeful of Pigs. There's also:
  • Hatful of Hollow, an album by the Smiths
  • Fistful of Dollars, a movie staring Clint Eastwood
  • A Treeful of Owls, a short story by Henry Beach Needham
  • A Saucerful of Secrets, an album by Pink Floyd
(The first two also with the anarthrous *ful.)

1 comment:

alienvoord said...

And the Robyn Hitchcock song, "Heartful of Leaves".