‘Succumb‘ is not a fruitful prompt for someone my age. I mean, it’s not likely to be ‘the insistent advances of handsome millionaire actor George Clooney’, is it? More like viral pneumonia, or rheumatoid arthritis. All I could think of was Succubus.
When I was at school we ‘did’ Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. I wanted to like Chaucer, really I did, but it was difficult with the textbook we were given. There was Chaucer and his Olde English (well, technically Middle English) on one side of the page and a translation on the opposite side. All well and good, but we were ‘doing’ the Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Wife of Bath was – as I guessed but could not discover how, from the translation – a somewhat saucy baggage. I remember learning that she had a gap between her two front teeth and that in the middle ages a gap-toothed lady was regarded as very saucy. I am not a medieval man, so I have no idea why this should be. Maybe it was the symbolism.
It doesn’t seem to work the other way round…
The trouble was, every time Nanny Translator got to a saucy bit she substituted an ellipsis (…). I would have entirely forgotten the word swynke by now – and probably Chaucer and the Wife of Bath too – as in
As help me God, I laughe when I thynke / How piteously a-night I made him swynke
had it not been for the fact that swynke was represented on the translation page by those tantalising three dots and the teacher flatly refused to even hint what it might mean. Our teenage imaginations went into overdrive. What could swynke-ing be, for goodness sake? And how was she making him do it?
Actually it just means work very hard, though by a-night we know she isn’t referring to heaving heavy sacks of coal or peeling potatoes.
However… (ellipsis) why was I going on about Chaucer? Oh yes, it was via Chaucer that I learned of the existence, in medieval legend, of a demon known as the succubus. There are incubi and succubi. Incubi are male demons that prey on women, and succubi are female demons that prey on men. Particularly monks. They appear in dreams and tempt their victims to do all sorts of sinful and salacious stuff.
Succcubus and succumb are related, loosely. From the Latin and then the French succomber – sub (under) + cumbere (to lie down). To succumb is to yield to a superior force or strength, or to be overpowered by a desire. It is also to be brought to an end (as in death) by destructive or disruptive forces. Since the evil succubus would exhaust or even kill her dreaming victim by feeding on his dream ‘energy’ you can see the connection, and if you google ‘succubus’ and click on Images you will get all sorts of lurid artistic re-imaginings of what she might have looked like.
You know how you suddenly realise an author has been cleverer than you realised – that pleasant little moment when the penny drops? J K Rowling is particularly good a this. For example, Sirius Black in Harry Potter, who tends to turn into a large black dog at intervals, has the name of the dog star, Sirius. And Diagon Alley is diagonally.
Well, I thought I had one of those with the character Lilith from Cheers and Frasier. Lilith is Frasier’s ex-wife, who simultaneously haunts, fascinates and drains him:
Six months ago I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating… So I ended the marriage once and for all, packed up my things, and moved back here to my home town of Seattle.
(1993 pilot episode of Frasier, “The Good Son”)
Ah, I thought. Lilith from Jewish mythology was in fact a succubus – a night-hag or night-monster. How clever they have been, those screenwriters, in choosing exactly the right name for Frasier’s scary, vampiric (but nonetheless amusing) ex-wife.
But then they went and let me down, those screenwriters. Researching further I discovered that Rob Sternin and Prudence Frasier had simply wanted a name that embodied sternness, like a Dickensian… headmistress in a high-necked blouse and tight bun. The Biblical badass didn’t factor in.
Well…well… bah! Why didn’t it? It jolly well should have.
I’m quite put out about it.