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Taking a spin with Yeats

Q: I couldn’t find “perne” in the OED.  Did Yeats coin the word? It means something like to turn or gyrate. He uses both “perne” and “gyre” in “Byzantium.”

A: Yes, William Butler Yeats did coin the verb “perne,” which means to revolve or spin. The Oxford English Dictionary discusses it under the spelling “pern,” which is odd since Yeats never spelled the verb that way.

He first used the verb in 1920, but he didn’t exactly pull it out of thin air. He adapted it from an Irish dialectal noun, “pern,” meaning a spool or bobbin.

In fact, Yeats had used the Irish noun earlier in his poetry. Here it is in a poem about recollecting youth in old age: “He unpacks the loaded pern / Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn” (from an elegy eventually titled “Shepherd and Goatherd,” written in 1918 and collected in The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919).

No doubt aware that “the loaded pern” would be obscure to many readers, Yeats added a note at the end of the collection: “When I was a child at Sligo I could see above my grandfather’s trees a little column of smoke from ‘the pern mill,’ and was told that ‘pern’ was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound.”

The poet soon appropriated this noun and transformed it into a verb that would evoke the motion of revolving or spinning. In his poetry, it conveys the vacillation of a conflicted soul. He uses the verb for the first time in “Demon and Beast” (written in 1920, published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921):

Though I had long perned in the gyre,
Between my hatred and desire,
I saw my freedom won
And all laugh in the sun.

The OED says that the verb was “adopted by W. B. Yeats from Irish dialect use.” The dictionary defines the verb as “to spin, revolve; to move with a winding or spiral motion.”

A better-known use of “perne” is from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (written in 1926, first published in October Blast in 1927).

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

By the way, the noun “gyre,” for a circle or spiral, also crops up frequently in Yeats’s poetry, as in these famous lines from “The Second Coming” (1919):

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

But getting back to “perne,” the OED notes that the Irish dialect noun that inspired it, “pern,” was in fact a variant of “pirn,” a Middle English noun for “a bobbin, spool, or reel.”

The old word “pirn” is now found in Scots dialect, the OED says, both as a noun and as a verb (meaning to weave, wind, or spin).

“Yeats does not seem to have been aware of the existence in Scots usage” of the noun and verb “pirn,” the dictionary says, “or he treated them as separate words, despite the obvious proximity in sense.”

And now a historical note about an even more obscure word spelled “perne,” a 16th-century verb that the OED labels “rare” and “now historical” (meaning that it’s now found only in references to times past).

The verb first meant “to turn (a garment)” and thus “to change (one’s opinion, adherence, etc.) frequently and insincerely,” Oxford says. It originated as a mocking reference to Andrew Perne, a noted turncoat.

Perne, who died in 1589, was master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and vice-chancellor of the university in the latter half of the 1500s. These were treacherous times for influential academics, but Perne managed to survive the violent and tumultuous times by skillfully shifting his political and religious views to suit the prevailing winds.

So this “perne,” unlike Yeats’s, is an eponym: a word inspired by a person or a person who inspired a word. We wrote posts about eponyms in 2010 and 2019.

The word (though in an adjectival form) was used to mock Andrew Perne even during his lifetime. This is the OED’s earliest sighting: “Who from their snares by sleight can slide, / In these so pernest tymes” (Epigrams and Sentences Spirituall in Vers, Thomas Drant’s 1568 translation of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople).

This anonymous use (misspelled) appeared around the time of Perne’s death: “What Doctor Pearne? Why he is the notablest turnecoate in al this land … it is made a prouerb … that if one haue a coate or cloake that is turned, they saye it is Pearned.” (From a religious pamphlet, A Dialogue Concerning the Tyrannical Dealings of the Lord Bishops, circa 1589.)

Rare though it is today, the usage was fairly well known in the early 17th century. Among the OED’s citations is one from Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), in which the phrase “retourner sa robbe” is defined as “to Pernize, or Apostatize it; to play the turne-coat.”

[Note: A reader writes on July 9, 2021, to say that the old word “pirn” is still used by weavers today. “This word is alive and well in the weaving world. A shuttle can hold a bobbin, which is flanged at both ends, or it can be made to use pirns, narrow tubes of cardboard or occasionally metal. Both serve the purpose of feeding weft thread across the warp, but pirns generally feed off the end while bobbins feed off the side. So many weaving terms have ancient roots; it’s always been fascinating to me.”]

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