And I thought it must be some kind of flower that grew wild down around Kyle’s Ford or Flower Gap. To tell the truth, when I was very young it stuck in my head for a while as “holly-molly-chinquapin.”
I never knew my maternal grandmother, Pearl Johnson Wallen. She passed before my birth. But I know she had trained to become a schoolteacher. And then she met my grandfather and instead became a wife and mother (in their day a woman couldn’t do both). And from stories told by Mom, her siblings, my own older siblings and our many cousins, I know Grandma Pearl had varied interests and a keen intellect. A stroke paralyzed her when Mom, the youngest of her 10 children, was still just a girl. It did not, however, steal her speech.
It was Grandma Pearl who taught Mom to spell honisoitquimalypense. Mom can still recite it to this day, as if she were in a spelling bee. Interrupting her at any point in the recitation can end badly. I had it on my mind one morning earlier this week as I reflected on the Santa Train and Marty Stuart. Stuart is from Mississippi. That made me think of “double” letters in spellings: “double ess,” and “double ell.” The “double ess” in Mississippi and also Tennessee. The “double ell” in Mom’s maiden name, Wallen.
My Aunt Ova once had a hard time telling a passer-through how to spell “Wallen,” because while they of course understood “double you” for “w,” (we still said “double you,” as in double “u,” back then because Dubya hadn’t been president yet) but they repeatedly asked her about the “double ell.” Apparently they’d never heard “double” anything in spelling, except for “w.” And that made me think of Mom’s magic word, which I had also wondered as a child might be akin to supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Maybe it was a string of syllables used as a teaching tool.
So, over breakfast I once again asked Mom to spell honisoitquimalypense, and I took notes. Mom, watching over my shoulder, pointed out when I missed a letter — and then she’d start over from the beginning. Once I had the spelling, I did what one does. I googled it. I’d tried that before, but must have not used the correct spelling, because I’d never found anything. But this time I did. I quickly learned it isn’t one word (although one word does show up in some search results).
It is actually “honi soit qui mal y pense” and it is French. It’s best known, perhaps, however as the motto of the British Order of the Garter. The Order of the Garter was created by King Edward III (1327-1377) in 1348 as a designation of chivalry. According to the official website of the British royal family:
• “In medieval times, King Edward III was so inspired by tales of King Arthur and the chivalry of the Knights of the Round Table that he set up his own group of honourable knights, called the Order of the Garter. Nearly 700 years later, the Order is the oldest and most senior Order of Chivalry in Britain. The Knights, now both male and female, used to be limited to aristocracy, but today they are chosen from a variety of backgrounds, in recognition for their public service.”
• The spiritual home of the Order is St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
That last part spooked me moments later when I walked into the living room and noticed a glossy photo of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. I picked it up and flipped it over to discover it was a just-arrived postcard my cousin Kerry Roller and his wife, Becky, had mailed to Mom on their recent trip to England. They’d mailed it from Windsor.
According to the College of St. George, at Windsor there are two explanations for the name of the order and its motto:
• The use of “garter,” which seems perhaps odd to us modern folk, gave rise to a popular legend about the foundation of the order. “According to this, the Countess of Salisbury lost her garter during a court ball at Calais and Edward III retrieved it, rebuking those who had mocked her embarrassment with the words ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ — shame on him who thinks evil of it.”
• “But this phrase, the motto of the order, actually refers to the king’s claim to the French throne, a claim which the Knights of the Garter were created to help prosecute. As to the emblem of the Garter, it may perhaps less interestingly, derive from the straps used to fasten plates of armour.”
I’ve also found that a British pottery which produced loads of items for export (bowls, platters, pitchers, jugs, etc.) incorporated the motto into their mark. That firm operated until the early 1930s.
But none of this has answered my wondering how my grandmother, who grew up in Hancock County, Tennessee, near Kyle’s Ford and later lived in the Flower Gap section of adjacent Lee County, Virginia, knew this French phrase used by the British. If you’re from around those parts and know of others mentioning “honisoitquimalypense” please let me know. While I await word otherwise, I will assume I’m descended from a member of the British Order of the Garter.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.