A rumour ran round Cern the other day, almost as fast as its accelerated particles, that the Higgs boson had been detected. This little creature, named after Peter Higgs (born, 1929) and the Indian physicist S. N. Bose (1894–1974), is tailor-made for a cosmic theory that calls for its interaction with quarks.
For my part, I’d be happy if we could even decide how to pronounce quark. Cern says it is pronounced kwork. After all, you might think its inventor, the American Murray Gell-Mann (also born in 1929) would know, and he said in a letter to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1978: ‘I employed the sound quork [kwork] for several weeks in 1963 before noticing “quark” in Finnegans Wake.’
The passage from Joyce reads: ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark. … That song sang seaswans. The winging ones. Seahawk, seagull, curlew and plover, kestrel and capercallzie. All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold when they smacked the big kuss of Trustan with Usolde.’
As quark there rhymes with mark, that might seem to be that. But Dr Gell-Mann wasn’t put off. ‘I needed an excuse for retaining the pronunciation quork despite the occurrence of Mark, bark, mark, and so forth in Finnegans Wake. I found that excuse by supposing that one ingredient of the line “Three quarks for Muster Mark” was a cry of “Three quarts for Mister…” heard in H.C. Earwicker’s pub.’
The clever men at Oxford have an alternative hypothesis about the word in Finnegans Wake: ‘In view of the context (a grotesque chorus of various seabirds; “Muster Mark” is King Marke, Tristan’s uncle), quark here probably represents quawk (noun).’ This means ‘The harsh call of a night heron, duck, or other bird.’ It too is pronounced kwork. When used by John Clare and included in his Later Poems (1864), it was spelled quark.
Peter Higgs, though, being a Northumberland man, will be aware of the complications presented by the vowel-system of his own region, as represented by the old joke of which Peter (Ancient and Modern) Jones reminded me. A southerner asked a Geordie whether her baby could walk yet. ‘Walk? He can’t even wark.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 14, 2011