The Great Grey-Green Greasy Limpopo River and other “Just So” Linguistic Choices


Way Back Wednesday is a Book Meme created by A Well Read Woman with the aim to write mini book reviews on books read in the past, that left a lasting impression.

34053When I think about books that left a lasting impression on me, I can’t help but remember Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. I have vivid memories of my grandmother reading to me from The Elephant’s Child, How the Camel Got Its Hump and How the Rhinoceros Got its Skin. My grandmother was a radio actress. (She played the role of Lenore Case in “The Green Hornet” and also acted in “The Lone Ranger”)  I remember being delighted by the fanciful stories, the image of an elephant’s nose being stretched into the trunk it has today. But what I recall more than anything was the language.  I can still hear my grandmother’s voice repeating the words “the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees.”

(The Limpopo is a real river, and fever trees are a real thing. You can click the image at the top of this article to read more about that if you wish.)

It was the first example that I recall of a certain kind of writing full of language that is evocative and experienced viscerally, more for its music than its meaning.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.

I remember the above verse by Samuel Taylor Coleridge without seeming to record any information about Kubla Khan or stately pleasure domes.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

My grandmother could recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, as I recall. I always wanted to memorize it myself. It would be, if nothing else, a good party trick. Alas, I never took the time and I’m afraid my mimsy borogove memorization era seems to have passed me by.
By the time I was in school, rote learning and memorizing of poems was deemed passe or not utilitarian enough, useless for earning a living. I regret that because the writers of past ages, whose works I enjoy reading, were created by subconscious minds seeped in the sound of beautiful language, poems, the plays of Shakespeare, Greek mythology and the King James Bible. My subconscious is filled with the Oscar Meyer wiener jingle, “Hey Mikey! He likes it!” and the theme to Gilligan’s Island.

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