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Word of the week: bayou

As a family, we have started to do the daily Wordle puzzle most days. My wife and our 15-year-old daughter have been doing it for a few months. Our 17-year-old son has been doing it in form time at school from time to time. I have only started in the last fortnight, long after most people.

One Sunday evening last month, before I had tried the puzzle myself (I’ll be specific: it was 29 May) my wife and daughter were on their second or third goes. I speculated, with my son, about 5-letter words that might be tricky. I threw out a few less common words: Kayak, Bayou, Magma, Igloo.

A minute or two later my daughter had got it. It was one of the words I had thrown out at random, a word she hadn’t heard of. She might not have tried it if I hadn’t said it. My wife hadn’t registered what I was saying, and was getting towards the end of her 6 goes. “Is it a word that I would know?”

I have learnt that this is not a straightforward question. It was a word that I have known since the age of 11, thanks to a Roy Orbison song. It turns out that she did not know it, despite being vaguely familiar with the tune, and with a Carpenters recording that also mentions the word.

We agreed that I could give her a musical clue. I sang the intro, “Bo-bo-bo-bo-bobo …” and then the opening lines: “I feel so bad I’ve got a worried mind  / I’m so lonesome all the time / Since I left my baby behind on …” Then I stopped. No? I tried a few more lines: “Saving nickels, saving dimes / Working until the sun don’t shine / Looking forward to happier times on …” We weren’t getting anywhere.

I was less familiar with the lyrics to the Carpenters recording (it’s a Hank Williams song) but I knew how it began: “Goodbye Joe, he gotta go, me-oh-my-oh …”

If you know either of these tunes you’ll know that the word was bayou. If you have a memory for dates and words you might have already remembered that that was the Wordle answer for 29 May 2022. Although it’s nearly 50 years since I first heard the Roy Orbison song (“Blue Bayou”) I had never, until last month, looked up the word. I figured it must refer to a body of water (there are references to fishing boats, with their sails afloat) but thanks to this Wikipedia page I can go further:

In usage in the Southern United States, a bayou is a body of water typically found in a flat, low-lying area; it may refer to an extremely slow-moving stream or river (often with a poorly defined shoreline), a marshy lake or wetland or a creek whose current reverses daily due to tides …

The Hank Williams song covered by The Carpenters, around the same time that I first heard Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”, was “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”. Until now I had never looked up the lyrics. It’s no wonder I couldn’t get past the first line. The second line is: “He gotta go, pole the pirogue down the Bayou”. Pirogue? So that’s what I’ve been hearing for nearly 50 years, and according to lexico.com it’s a “long, narrow canoe made from a single tree trunk, especially in Central America and the Caribbean”.

The very next day Wordle offered us another geographical feature: atoll. Again, my wife and daughter were unfamiliar with the word. Again, I had heard it but couldn’t give a dictionary-style definition. I knew about nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific in the 1940s, near Bikini Atoll. A newly launched swimsuit was named after it because its effect was so explosive. That’s what I remembered, anyway.

I’ll leave it to the National Geographic website for a proper definition:

An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef, island, or series of islets. An atoll surrounds a body of water called a lagoon. Sometimes, atolls and lagoons protect a central island. Channels between islets connect a lagoon to the open ocean or sea.

As we’ve all learned, it’s completely different from a bayou.


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