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Posts Tagged ‘definition’

Donkey – Who hasn’t heard of Mary riding into Bethlehem on a donkey?  Well, before the late 1700’s, no one had.  This word entered our language as slang (ironic since it replaced the word ass, which has come to have quite the list of its own slang definitions since).  Donkey is perhaps a diminutive (smaller or junior version) term for a dun, a small horse. The word dun is an old color word meaning “dull grey-brown”.

 

Ass – Is one of the few words classified as cussing, swearing, profane, or generally “bad” that I will speak, as it is found in the Old King James Bible, and also in “What Child is This?”  Etymologists seem to agree that this name for the animal comes from the Middle East.  Whether the name comes from the word meaning “strong” and a sense of stubbornness or docile patience, or if that word derived from the beast’s behavior, I can’t tell, but they do seem to be related.

 

Oxen – Beside the ass in “What Child Is This?” we find an ox kneeling at the Lord’s manger.  Our language’s history is replete with plurals formed by adding –en, but according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this is the only true continuous survival of such a plural into Modern English.  As best I can tell, the early origins of this animal name refer to the male, and mean “to sprinkle”, referring to their fertility.  In some religions, the gods of fertile fields are pictured as bulls or oxen, for this reason. I think the Proto-Indo-European root, *uks-en-, and the Sanskrit attestation, uksa, sound like yak, but no one else has seemed to notice, except the Edenics researchers, who cite Sanskrit gayal; Hebrew ‘agol, “calf”, from a sense of “round” or “going around”; and Hebrew aqqow, translated “wild goat” in KJV, and from a root meaning “to groan” – which I will note is indicative of hard work, which oxen and yaks are more wont to do than goats.

 

Sheep – The animals actually appearing in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are sheep.  While Scandinavian languages use a word like faar for “sheep”, and Gothic languages use relatives of lamb, and other Indo-European words are similar to ewe, our word sheep has been in the Germanic family for a while.  Wiktionary hints that sheep may be from the same root as shave – referring to the importance of the animal’s sheered wool?  We use the same word for one sheep or many, but in Old Northumbrian, the plural is scipo.

 

Lamb – After consulting multiple etymology dictionaries, and none of them having any insight into the sense of the word lamb, I checked the Edenics sites.  Edenics is somewhat appealing to me in that it credits meaning to sound and spelling, and does a good job compiling words with similar spellings and intriguing analogies in meanings.  They don’t do such a good job tracing transitional words through history in literature, leaving them in a different category from traditional etymologists.  So.  Lekhem is, in Hebrew, “bread, food, flesh” – possibly from a root meaning “to make war”.  It may be a stretch, but by Ezra’s time, Aramaic had ‘immar for “lamb”, the root maybe indicating “something that is called or brought forth, progeny”.  Because L’s and R’s can shift in pronunciations, it is even possible that this and the Hebrew word for wool, tsemer (think Merino) could be related to lamb: swap out the R for the L and reverse the order.  Arabic lahm means “meat”.  Dutch lichaam is “body”.  Finnish has a word for an animal (a sheep?), lammas.  Is this the source of llama, or is it related to our next Christmas animal, the camel?

 

Camel – Traditionally, three wise men arrive in the Christmas story with their caravan of camels bearing gifts to the star-heralded King.  Camel comes from Hebrew gamal (which is even the name of one of their letters), and might be related to Arabic jamala, “to bear”.  Some Edenics writers think that llamas, as the primary beast of burden in South America, may trace their name from a similar source.

 

Besides the animals appearing in the Christian story of the Incarnation, our traditions have come to include several other animals in the seasonal festivities.

 

Reindeer – In some languages, rein or its equivalents stand alone as the word for this animal.  It seems to have to do with the impressive growth of horns on their heads.  The suggested root is PIE base *ker- which would associate it with the Greek for ram, krios.

 

Deer – Before the 1400’s, this word just meant “animal”, a word distinguishing creatures from humans, usually applied only to wild animals.  Its origins are from words that have to do with breathing, thus separating this class of creation out from life which has no breath (a rather biblical concept).  This same thought-pattern is said to have given us the word animal from Latin animus (“breath”).

 

Polar bearPole is from Latin polus, Greek polos, “pivot, axis of a sphere”.  Some say it is from a root meaning “turn round” and having to do with concepts of turning, rolling, and wheels.  An etymology I find less likely suggests a root meaning “stake”, “to nail or fasten”.

 

Bear is one of the most interesting etymologies.  Most etymologists say that it is named for the color brown, which makes it kind of funny that we apply it to so many similar creatures – by class like polar bears, or appearance like koalas and pandas – that have different colors!  Beaver is also said to derive its name from the same color root, *bher-.  And a Greek cognate, phrynos, meaning “brown animal”, applies to toads!

 

An alternative etymology for bear is one that relates it to words meaning “wild”, like Latin ferus.  The Proto-Indo-European root would then be *ǵʰwer-.  If you follow Edenics, you might be interested in their similar etymology of bear (and boar) to roots B-R, F-R, and P-R all associated with wilderness and lawlessness – the outskirts of civilization.

 

Bears are classically associated with the poles (which are also on the outskirts of civilization, unless you heed the rumors about an elvish toy workshop), especially the north, because of the constellation Ursa Major.  Ursa is from the Latin for bear.  The Greek for bear is arktos, from whence we get our word arctic.
Boar – There is a carol introduced to me by Archibald Asparagus from Veggie Tales, called “The Boar’s Head Carol”.  Apparently it is also on Josh Garrels’ new Christmas album.  It’s the only reason I know to connect boars with Christmas, and it is probably more accurately derived from Yule traditions, but I can’t have mere boring things like sheep and donkeys in my list!  The origin of this word is unclear, probably because, like most animal names, for a very long time it has just referred to the creature we know by this name.  All sorts of Germanic peoples have basically called it the same thing.  One not-well established hypothesis associates this word with Lithuanian baĩsas , “terrible apparition” and Old Church Slavonic běsŭ, “demon”.  As I mentioned above, it might actually come from a word meaning “wild”.  Demons are also rebels, exiles from the holy forces of God, and capable of appearing as “terrible apparitions”.  Boars, apart from any spiritual creepiness, are pretty terrifying themselves.  I think of the kid from Old Yeller hiding in a tree while ravenous wild pigs bite at his leg.

 

Goose – In the old days, goose was a favorite Christmas entrée.  Before goose, it was gos, like gosling, and before that it was gans, like gander.  The theory is that gans and similar words for geese and swans in other languages are imitative of the honking these birds make.

 

Puppy – Finally, puppies have begun to appear under Christmas trees with big red bows around their necks, calculated to bless the hearts of small children. The word came into our language in the late 15th Century, applied to a woman’s small pet dog, instead of the larger and fiercer breeds kept by men for shepherding or hunting.  In the Middle French, whence we get the word, it was a toy or a doll, sharing its ancestry with puppet.  Original root words had to do with children and smallness.

 

Credits to

The Online Etymology Dictionary

Wiktionary

Edenics

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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One afternoon, years ago, I was watching an old Cary Grant movie.  His name was Noah.  People kept saying it.  I listened, and it kept striking me as such an odd name.  No-uh?  What is that name?  (Sometimes my brain doesn’t work right.)  After an hour or so, it struck me that Noah is not only one of the most famous men in history (he built an ark), but also the name of one of my cousins.

But, you know, sometimes things just strike you in a way they never have before, and they feel all new and mysterious.  That’s part of what I love about etymology: discovering hidden depths in words and phrases I’ve known all my life.  The latest phrase to catch my fancy was “by and large”, spoken innocently in a radio interview, and arousing my curiosity.

Of course I know what it means.  I perfectly understood the man on the radio.  We use it to mean “generally” or “in most cases”.  But while I could get kind of a picture of either “by” or “large” used for that sense – we do use “largely” to mean almost the same thing – I couldn’t see why they were together.  To the internet!
Online, I discovered a most interesting history for the phrase.  A more vivid rendering of this metaphor would be “against and with the wind, still able to move forward”.  The idiom is a sailing term, from the fact that, by shifting the angles of your (triangular) sails to almost-parallel (by) and then your (square-rigged) sails almost-perpendicular (large) to the wind, a ship can progress even when the wind is blowing opposite of the direction they want to go.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “By the early 1700s the term had been broadened to mean ‘in one direction and another,’ whence its present meaning of ‘in general.’ “
This is not a very technical description of the 17th-century nautical techniques, but it is beautiful.  When I hear “large” in this context now, I picture a big sheet puffed full with a breeze.  And “by” makes me think of a hand to a rudder or wheel, playing a dance with the wind to keep it just barely pushing them forward, maybe a bit off course, but soon to be balanced by a little shift a bit to the other side of straight.
To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn

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It seems to me a good idea for our laws to be based on truth.  If the meaning of “miles per hour” is ambiguous, I would want to find the true definition of miles and hour rather than arbitrarily setting up some other explanation.  No argument about how an accurate definition of miles would infringe my freedom to drive as fast as I wanted should be considered.  We might change the law to increase the speed limit if that is our argument, but we cannot keep the existing law and just lie about what all the words mean.

Personhood is such an issue.  We have a law that guarantees life and due process to all persons.  If we don’t like that law, we can try to change it so that not all persons are so guaranteed.  (That law, incidentally, is based on a moral judgment that murder is wrong.  Many of our laws are enforcement of morality.)  What we cannot do is alter the definition of a person to mean something that it truly does not.  Defining the word “person” to include my rocking chair would be absurd.  Including my pet would be a stretch not intended by those who wrote the law.  Excluding my neighbor with freckles is dishonest.  Saying that my neighbor in the womb is less of a person than me is too arbitrary to be good science or good law.

Some would argue that the truth reflected in our laws should be based on precedent.  This breaks down for a number of reasons.  First, we have the problem of where the very first precedents got their truth.  History does not record an eternal list of precedents.  Secondly, we can point to many court rulings that have been made by liars, self-serving judges who refused to acknowledge the truth.  For example, see the slavery decision Dred Scott.  Finally, precedents can (and sometimes should) be overturned.  The “landmark” ruling that made abortion legal throughout the USA, Roe v. Wade, overturned many state laws that had been in existence for years.  It wasn’t that the question of reproductive rights had never been in court before; this was simply the first time the Supreme Court said abortion was a mother’s “right.”  (I must specify that it was seen as a woman’s right, not a man’s right or a baby’s right – which is important.  Roe v. Wade rests in the supposition that the baby is actually a part of the mother, thus giving her special privileges to end his life.  US law does not give a man the right to decide a mother must abort.  In fact, it will punish those criminals who assault a preborn child.  Nor does the legal system ask the baby, who is demonstrably a separate entity from his mother, whether he wants to be aborted, or acknowledge his right to life.  This is what Personhood seeks to amend.)

Another supposed basis for the truth of our laws is democracy.  What does the majority believe or want?  While our government is set up as a participatory representative system, where the voice of the people influences the leaders making the laws and even at times the laws themselves, this is arguably not the best means for ensuring justice.  The majority has sometimes voted for terrorist governments.  Or for slavery.  Hitler got his first foothold of power through democracy.  A majority of people once believed the world was flat.  We human beings are special, but not powerful enough to mold truth as we wish it was.  Republics like ours, the founding fathers warned us, are only sustainable, only free, if they are comprised of a moral citizenry.  The people must acknowledge a standard outside of themselves, and align with that, for freedom and justice to exist.

Can science be used to decide such a moral and philosophical question as what constitutes life or personhood?  We already have these philosophical terms in our law.  These words have been applied to at least some groups of humanity since the law was written.  No one disputes that the word “person” applies to a large part of humanity (always including the one making the judgment).  And here comes science, demonstrating that there is no significant, meaningful difference between one group of human beings and another.  Science can demonstrate that skin color is not a factor in personhood.  Size does not make person more of a person.  In fact, science can tell us that a human being has the same unique DNA from the moment of conception, at their birth, as they grow from infants to adolescents to fully-formed adults, even as they age and their health declines.

Any lines that have been proposed distinguishing one class of human beings as non-persons have been arbitrary.  Every person needs two things to continue living: nourishment and defense from violence.  The fertilized egg, the single-celled human embryo, needs only these things to develop into an adult.  An infant 1 year of age is still very dependent on his parents for the necessary nourishment and protection.  But given these things, he will grow into a man.  A young woman has to go through puberty to give her the hourglass shape associated with womanhood (and the ability to reproduce).  Where do you draw the line?  Which of these stages begins personhood?

In the history of this debate, the line of personhood has been suggested to begin:

–         at some point after birth when the baby is still dependent on his parents.  (If we draw the line at 3 months, was he less of a human the 24 hours before he was 3 months?  Honestly?)

–         at the first breath of air.  (Are humans receiving CPR or on ventilators not people?  What about the pre-mi’s born and kept alive for months by artificial breathing machines, to be weaned off when their lungs developed fully?)

–         when the baby completely leaves the womb – birth.  (Ten inches decides the identity of a human being?  There have been surgeries performed on preborn babies that involve removing the infants from the womb and then returning them there.  Are they people while out of the womb, then non-people again?  What has changed in the baby?)

–         at viability.  (Come What May, a film produced by the students at Patrick Henry College, makes the point that when we talk about viability, we are talking about viability sustained by human inventions.  Most babies are viable in the womb.  When we talk about viability, though, we disqualify that means of life support and substitute our own.  Man is not better than God at providing a hospitable environment for the youngest among us.  Even aside from that argument, our technology is improving.  A child who was not viable outside the womb 20 years ago might be now.  Nothing changed in the abilities or nature of the children.  We changed.)

–         when the mother can first detect movement – sometimes called “quickening.”  (Some mothers are more sensitive to the movement of their child than others.  Body shape and other factors might contribute to missing the first sensations of motion.  Also, some preborn babies move less or less emphatically than others.  We know from scientific experience that the baby is moving: swimming – from day one when he moves to the uterus!, kicking, waving, turning, changing facial expressions.  Again, this line is not dependent on the nature of the being inside the mother.)

–         at the beginning of biological development – called fertilization or conception.  (At this point a new life is begun.  Already his DNA has determined his features, his gender, his blood type – all of which can be different from his mother’s.  Before this moment, more was needed than nourishment and protection.  After this he will grow at his own body’s initiative and direction.)

All but the last “line” are arbitrary – as arbitrary as me deciding you were not a person because you live in the country, or because your skin is a different color from mine, or because I can whistle and you can’t (actually, I can’t), or worse: if I can’t hear you whistle even when you are.  Science and a bit of logic can recognize that there is no objective difference between adults like us and the kids who are so needy and the preborn.  Draw the line at conception.  Anything else is discrimination.

One more point I’d like to address is the legal objection many put forward.  In most abortion laws, pro-abortion activists push for “exceptions,” when a baby may still be killed.  They say that oh yes, abortion is a tragedy and we want it to be rare.  But surely there are bigger tragedies that abortion could solve: rape, incest, the life of the mother.

Regarding the “life of the mother” exception: our definition of person begins at conception.  It doesn’t end at birth.  This definition includes mothers.  The life of the baby is not, by this truth-reliant definition, more or less important than the mother’s.  Doctors and parents would be legally required to treat that baby as a person, without treating the mother as a non-person.  That’s the answer to the most common “life of the mother” clause.  No exception is necessary in the wording used by Personhood groups, because they affirm the right of the mother to life as well as the right of the baby.

But there are other “exceptions” argued for.  These tragedies are chosen for the exception list emotionally.  Why not include in the list: financial incompetence, household over-population, genetic deformity?  And if you go that far, why not make exceptions for gender, for the mom’s busy career, for her relationship with the father?  I’m not saying that everyone pushing for a few exceptions wants all of these exceptions.  My goal is to make it obvious that to be consistent in their reasoning, they should include all of these exceptions.  In every case the baby is a person.

That’s why I want to finish by asking you a few questions:

–         Is a human being not a person if her father is a rapist?  Is a 3 year old not a person if her father is a rapist?  Do you have less rights if your father was a rapist?

–         Is a human being not a person if his mother gets cancer?  Is a 3 year old not a person if his mom gets cancer?  Do you have less rights if your mother gets cancer?

–         Is a human being not a person if he and his mother are in danger and only one of them can be rescued?  Is a 3 year old not a person if he and his mother are in danger and only one of them can be rescued?  Do you have less rights if you and your mother are in danger and only one of you can be rescued?

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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If you ever get that craving to find treasure, just for the thrill of finding, get into words.  Open a dictionary, read the definition that catches your eye first, and ask yourself questions.  What did that one word mean in the definition?  What are the root words, and where are they from?  How is that word related to other words that sound or are spelled similarly but whose definitions you never before associated?  Is there a list of synonyms?  How are they similar to the first word?  What variations do they put on it?

If you get really interested in the hunt, pick up a book about interesting words.  There are many of them.  I have been a fan of JRR Tolkien for years, and his books contain many interesting words.  In one reading of Lord of the Rings, I kept a list.  Even if the words were familiar, I listed ones that sounded good, or that had an intriguing spelling – words that stood out.  Then I started looking up their definitions and etymologies.  There is a book I’m reading now, Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary.  Over half of the book is word studies.

You can learn interesting things, like the history of “ent.”  It comes from old Germanic and Norse words for giants.  In those ancient days when the word was in common use, the writers attributed still older ruined cities and half-remembered mythologies to “ents.”

Or you can start wondering about words.  How is dwarf related to orcs and ogres?  To rocks?  Especially in mythology, and very intentionally in Tolkien’s myths, relations between words reflect relations between the objects they describe.  If the word “dwarf” derives from a word for “rock,” then maybe dwarves themselves come from rocks.

EVEN if you are wrong (as I often am) you’ve started your imagination on a great story.  And along the way, you’ve undoubtedly found some absorbing treasures of words and history.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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