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Posts Tagged ‘language’

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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What Makes A Culture?

Can an individual have their own culture, or must the aspects be shared by a group?  How much can be absent or altered without losing (collective) culture or (personal) identity?

When I think of culture, one of the first things to come to mind is food.  When I get a chance to visit another country, I want to experience their food: the tang in the air, the flavors, the different ingredients.  I’m curious whether food is mostly served at home or at a restaurant?  If Asian markets are any hint, pre-packaged foods are popular in China.  But Asian cooking involves all sorts of raw ingredients I’ve never heard of here in the United States.  Here also we have one of our cultures that only eats either frozen foods or fast foods or snacks.  But aren’t there still places in the world where cooking from scratch is an art?  Some cultures encourage bonding over sharing food in various degrees from a family meal to a family-style where the food is served all in giant platters into which people dip their hands to hospitality.  On the other end of the spectrum is the more formal dining experience, at a restaurant, with plates individually prepared, courses served.  There are cultures more receptive to buffets (my grandparents from Kansas *loved* them), or short-order cooking.  There is something special that some cultures encourage about preparing food together.  Some places esteem cooks highly, while others relegate the cooking of food to the lowliest classes (or women or slaves).  In some cultures dessert is a special treat, for holidays maybe – while some have a dessert at least once a day!  Which cultures care about nutrition?  Which about presentation?  Which about exotic flavors and innovative dishes?  Which focus more on comfort food and cravings?  What are considered comfort foods in various cultures?

I’ve noticed that different cultures have different modes of posture.  Some use chairs, and some cushions.  Some have sofas, others benches.  There are places where squatting is more common than sitting “Indian-style”.  Related to this, I think, is hygiene: how often do the people bathe, and by what means?  What are their toilet facilities like – or do they use fields, dig holes?  How do the people view health, view disease?  How do they treat it?  Do they use prayers or rituals?  Exercises?  Medicines?  Drugs?  Herbal remedies and nutrition?  Oils?  Mineral baths?  Other practices like chiropractors would employ?  Do they gather the sick together in hospitals or tend them at home?  Are there doctors?  How much treatment is limited to professionals?  Do they believe in preemptive medical care like scans or vaccinations?  At what points do they choose not to treat a person any more?

How are drugs and alcohol viewed?  Sometimes there are whole cultures built around the common experience of these substances.

What do people wear in various cultures?  What are the conventions; that is, is it normal for anyone to wear pants?  Robes?  Hats?  Certain colors or fabrics?  What is the style?  How often do fashions change?  How are they changed?  Does appearance matter as a form of art or more a form of modesty?  Is clothing more about the aesthetic or the functional?  How is clothing used to demonstrate distinctions in gender, age, class, employment, marital status, etc.?  Do people alter their bodies for the sake of appearance: foot binding, neck stretching, piercings, tattoos?

It seems to me that different cultures hold different ideas about acceptable risks.  Is it acceptable to let a child play near a fire?  Jump off a log?  Play where he might encounter a snake?  Get into a fist-fight with another child?  This is not exclusive to children, though.  In some cultures taking risks is involved in a rite of passage.  Risks are joined in together, to form social bonds.  Other cultures are much more conservative and careful, I think.  What do people put on the other side of the scale when they’re weighing risks?  Are fun and excitement of any relevance to them?  Competition?  Appearance?  Or do they only consider practical things like preparing for invasions or hunting for food?

Art is such a huge sphere for culture that I don’t even know where to begin.  Cultures have their favorite mediums, subjects, colors, motives.  I can only suppose that certain fonts are the preferred writing of specific cultures, since the fonts on grocery stores appealing to diverse cultures are unique and identifiable even in the United States.  People groups have their own favorite sounds of music, their customary scales in which their music is played or sung.  Some have more instruments than others.  Dancing varies from culture to culture in complexity and energy and purpose.

There are other forms of entertainment that vary depending on the culture.  Even the predominance of entertainment can be a mark of a different culture.  Sports are observed as entertainment, or played for entertainment; in some cultures it seems to be one more than the other.  Some sports are preferred by certain cultures, probably by way of other aspects of their culture (energy, reserve, risk) and inheritance (what did their parents play or watch?).  The complexity of toys, items used for play and entertainment, is also different in foreign places.  Some toys focus more on athleticism, others on skill and focus, and others do most of the work for you, performing for your enjoyment.  Toys can be scientific or domestic – little representations of the working world.  On the other hand, they can be silly escapes from the real world.

Architecture is probably a form of art, too.  But I think it transcends art in that buildings often serve additional purposes.  So, is the architecture of a culture about efficiency? Beauty?  Community?  Symbolism?  Do they use materials found at hand, or manufactured, or transported to the building site?  How big are they – are they too big for one family to raise themselves?  Do people try to live in the same place their whole lives, or are they ambitious for bigger buildings?  Do they live in natural formations like caves?  Do they dig out holes in the ground?  Do they live in trees?  By rivers?  Do they dig wells or irrigation trenches?  Do they build dams?  And how much do all of these things influence other aspects of the culture, like family and friends and food and business?

An aspect of culture in my own country so glaring that I failed to recognize it at first is materialism.  How many things do people own?  Is it a status symbol to own more?  Is sharing encouraged?  Do people show love through gifts?  How do people feel about financial sacrifice?  Do they invest in material things or in businesses – or adventures?  Where do they keep their goods?  Are things owned by individuals or groups or everyone?  Is there a distinction between land as property and removable objects as property?

Cultures have their own stories.  “Own” is here used loosely, because I have found common threads of story in many different cultures.  There are fables about the origins of things, and love stories, and stories of wars and sacrifice.  Some stories even have comedies, the sense of humor varying from culture to culture (and individual to individual).  What is seen as a hero?  Is it the man who slays the most enemies?  The man who rules the most living men?  The man who sacrifices himself?  Different cultures have their different monsters.  They have their own dominant fears, just as they have different favorite virtues.

Values shape cultures.  It seems that in America the dominant culture values independence, and speaking our mind.  I’ve heard of cultures that value the good of the whole.  Some value honor, others hold preserving life as a higher value.  Some value youth, and others value the elders.

Religions are often associated with and intertwined in cultures.  Is there one sovereign God?  What is He/he like?  Are there many gods worshiped?  Are certain animals or plants revered?  How is worship carried out?  Through song?  Pilgrimage?  Sex?  Sacrifice?  Sacred words?  Eating?

Cultures have often established their own rituals to recognize significant events like birthdays, coming of age, marriage, and other accomplishments (like graduation).  They have special ways of holding funerals.  They bring their own unique takes on holidays.  What fun, to see images and artifacts from Christmases in other places or ages!

Language is one of my favorite aspects of culture.  Is it important to the culture?  Is it precise or more personal?  Is it written or mostly spoken?  Is it tonal?  How appropriate are metaphors, slang, and profanity?  What are the customary greetings?  Besides the words spoken, what other gestures are included?  What gestures are seen as essential to good manners, and which ones are abhorrent?  Which ones are just the convention?  One tribe I heard of rubs its nose while thinking, but it is more common for my culture to scratch our head or chin – or to frown.  Does the culture encourage more or less expression of one’s own thoughts – or feelings?  Which is predominant: thoughts or feelings?  Is expression mostly communicated by gesture, action, word, or art?  Accordingly, are the people of the culture more generally reserved – or exuberant?  Are they loud or quiet?  Does everyone speak at once?  Do they take turns at anything they do?

How intimate are their friendships?  How many friends does a person tend to have?  Do they share their friends with their whole family, or is it a private affair?  How do they play?  Is playing part of friendship?  How do they show honor?  How do they respond to dishonor?  Is dishonor a casual joke or a serious offense?  How are reconciliations brought about?

There is diversity in any culture, large or small.  How is that balanced?  Is it suppressed or embraced?  Is there competition more than cooperation?  Do they try to come to unity, or to sameness?  Are differences displayed?  Analyzed?  Intentionally created?  What things are used to emphasize (or manufacture) what they have in common?  I know in some places religion does this, in others wars bring people together against a common enemy, and in others it is the common experience of standardized schooling that prepares them to respond in similar ways to things.

I don’t know if there are cultures without classes, but given that in most there are, how are relationships between the classes?  Is there mutual respect?  Is there resentment?  Are people generally content with the life to which they were born?  Do they practice cruelty or charity towards the classes that are more needy?  Is this voluntary or institutionalized?

How big is one’s sphere in their culture?  Who does a culture encourage friendship with?  Who does it encourage responsibility towards?  What are members encouraged to aspire to?  How much is proximity a factor?  What kinds of transportation do people use (walking, driving, biking, boating, flying, carting, carrying)?  Do people travel for social reasons or economic ones?  Or are there environmental reasons to practice a sort of migratory lifestyle?

Here in the United States we have many cultures living side by side, some whose “boundaries” are only a block or two from a significantly different group.  And with technology the way it is today, we can converse with people far away, travel quickly to see them, view photos they took, and purchase art created in foreign cultures.  How aware are people of other cultures?  (How aware are they that theirs is distinct?)  Are they interested in them?  Do they want to integrate good things from other cultures into their own?  Do they integrate foreigners?  Is this by means of cooperation or an initiation and instruction?  Are they willing to adapt their own culture?  Do they resist change?  Do they try to replace every culture they meet?  Do they replace the cultures of peoples they come to dominate?  Do they have compassion for foreigners or other cultures?  Do they feel superior?  Do they covet what other cultures have or are?

To an extent, family structure is different in cultures.  How do husbands relate to their wives, and what is expected of each within the home?  How do people come to be married?  How many wives may a man have?  How do parents relate to their children?  Who else bears the burden of child-rearing (community, grandparents, school, nannies)?  What kinds of discipline are used?  Are children seen and not heard?  Are they seen as trophies or contributors?  How important is extended family?  Is family more important than friends?  Are there specific obligations towards family members?  How does a family unit relate to the rest of the world?  How much is the government involved?

Some people view laws and government as providing order and security, or as being the at-the-ready conflict resolvers, while others expect the government to oversee all of the individual’s (and group’s) needs.  Some expect the government to enforce justice, and others are content with a system built on bribes.  Do the people believe it is their place to submit, or to reform, or to revolt?  In some places, the government is not only expected to take care of needs, but to take on big societal problems, and solve them.  Governments tend to look out for their own interests, but whether the peoples are ok with that or not is not so universal.  Some governments take in a vast number of citizens, whereas there are some whose range is limited to the immediate family of a Bedouin tribe.

Is business conducted in a personal way?  Does a person go door to door offering their goods or services?  Is there a public common market or do consumers seek out goods and services at specific phone numbers, websites, or stores?  Is a transaction considered between equals, or are service providers a lower class?  Are the servants recognized as members of a household or anonymous functionaries?  Is there a mindset of professionalism?  Who desires the professionalism – professional or consumer or both or neither?  How influential are corporations – the idea that no one person is responsible for the good or service being sold?

There is such a variety of technology, and tools, that are used in different societies, and these can be both representative and influential.  What things are used for communication?  For building?  Transporting?  How much of life is taken up by work?

What is the general schedule?  What is the work week?  How many hours in a day are work?  Is work a means or an end?  Which hours are devoted to sleeping?  When and how do people wake?  When do they play?  When do they have social activities?  Do they work together or finish their work and then spend time together?  When do they eat and how often?

If a group’s language is forgotten, and they move from the land of their buildings and ditches; if they stop playing with their old toys, and their clothing no longer distinguishes them clearly from one class to another – but they carry on a secret family recipe from the old, old days when all those things had been in place, have they lost their culture?  Can they share their recipe, market their spices and vegetables to other people groups, and still have their culture?  When do we say a culture has become distinct?  When do we say it has merged with another?

Should we try to preserve cultures?  Or is a way of life gloriously defined by the personalities and abilities and histories of the people who make up the group?  Is there a difference between dissolving a culture and replacing it?  What harms does the structure of tradition found in a culture cause?  What benefits does it provide?

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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In a world where (aggressively shifting) vocabularies rule our comprehension and communication is often compressed into a “tweet” or a “text”, the elegant structure of grammar as an aid in clearly passing thoughts and information from one person to another may be a lost art.  How can we withstand it?  Maybe language ought to be more poetic, about the images it gives us, the feelings with which we respond, the ways we wish to interpret what we hear.  In which case, all those little in-between words aren’t so necessary anymore…

 

I once had an experience with a young woman who believed God wished all people to be vegetarians.  We read together from Genesis 9: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, [that is], its blood.”  She picked out a few words on which to base her application: “not eat flesh” and she said this was because of the “blood” and respect for “life”. 

 

This girl had a subjective interpretation that served her preconceptions.  The last words had more impact on her, too, I believe, because she remembered them better than the first sentence.  She seemed unable to grasp the relationship between one thought and the next, though she used cause and effect words (not rationale, only the vocabulary) in defense of her own position.  People like her know what words sound persuasive, what words make people feel good.  I wonder how often more intelligent speakers are condemned for being judgmental simply because our vocabulary made people feel bad, made them feel that we were dealing in stark absolutes. 

 

And I am encountering this phenomenon in lesser degrees more and more.  A word in a sentence might just as easily suggest its opposite as its traditional meaning.  A word may or may not be modified by other words in context.  My interpretation of what you say or write is just as valid, just as likely to guide my decisions, as the interpretation you intended.  Ideas cannot be comprehended if they take more than three sentences to build and capstone. 

 

What is our obligation to combat these trends?  How much are we the communicators responsible to mind our audience and deliver our messages in ways that will have the effect we desire? 

 

These are the questions I wish to explore with my new blog, “Retold for the Modern Reader” at www.LanguageDeconstruction.blogspot.com

 

To God be all glory, 

Lisa of Longbourn

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I don’t know how “tan” developed into “toe” in the name for that plant you kiss under at Christmastide.  But in Old English, “mistletoe” was spelled mistiltan from the root “missel”, basil or the plant we know as mistletoe, and “tan”, which means twig.

Speaking of “Christmastide”, the second half of that compound word is something we usually associate with the ocean and beach.  “Tide” arrived in English, however, associated with time.  In Old English it meant a period of time, from an ancient root having to do with dividing out a portion.  By the 1300’s we were using it to refer to the water levels on the shore, from the idea of “high tide” and “low tide” being at specific times.  Old English had the word heahtid but at that time, it would have referred to a day like Christmas, “festival, high day”.

Tidings“, as in “tidings of comfort and joy“, has a long history, early diverging from the word “tide”.  For a thousand years it has meant an announcement of an event.  It comes from the Old Norse adjective tiðr, “occurring”.  Going just a bit further back, this word joins with the roots of “tide”.  

The debate rages about celebrating Christ’s birth near the solstice, when the Northern hemisphere has the shortest day of the year.  Pagan observances of this event involved the expectation for the winter to end and life to begin again.  Israel, where Jesus was born, is in the Northern Hemisphere, but that is no proof that his birthday was in that season.  Regardless of the actual event, we have placed Christmas at what is considered by astronomers to be the beginning of winter.  In Celtic nations and Scandinavia, the solstice is considered to be “midwinter”, an interpretation I prefer, agreeing with meteorologists’ definition of winter as the coldest months, normally all of December, January, and February here on this half of the globe.  Etymologists don’t know where the word “winter” comes from, but they have a couple ideas.  One is that it comes from a word for “wet”, *wed-/*wod-/*ud-which makes sense in more temperate climates.  Or it might be from the word for “white”, *wind-.  Obviously this latter is more relevant to the ice and snow of the cold season.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Christmas carol written by Christina Rosetti by 1872, celebrating Jesus’ humbling Himself:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

The word “bleak” meant “pale, whitish, blonde” in the Old Norse whence it arrived in English circa A.D. 1300.  Before that, the words origins meant “shining, white” or “burning”.  The same root gave us the word “black”, from the color things get after they have been burned.  By 1530 it also carried the meaning “windswept, bare”.

Such conditions alongside the green of fir trees, or the geothermal fields of Iceland are signature beauties of Scandinavia, and even the northeast coast of the United States.  There is something wonderful about life continuing amid hostility, be it from weather, self-righteous religious leaders, or power-paranoid kings like Herod.  Winters, and birthing in a stable when You’re really King of Heaven and Earth, can be harsh.  “Stark” is an Old English word stearc with an extensive definition: “stiff, strong, rigid, obstinate; stern, severe, hard; harsh, rough, violent”.  One of the things I love about places like Iceland is how the difficult climate and landscape have revealed the stern character of the people who live there.  But how do you embrace strength in hardship without losing tenderness and humility?

Jesus, the mighty Son of God, gave us an example when He was born a needy babe, pursuing with perfect resolution His cause of love, though He walked through the wilderness and built a whip to drive money-changers out of the temple, and though He submitted Himself to face a severe death by crucifixion.  “Babe” was likely imitative of infants babbling, though in most cases this became a word like baba for “peasant woman” or “mother”, as Etymonline.com cites John Audelay, c. 1426: “Crist crid in cradil, ‘Moder, Baba!‘ ”  Old English used the word “child” to refer to infants.  It seems originally to refer to the relation between the little one and his or her mother, as the “fruit of her womb”.  The significance of the mother’s role in bearing the child is also seen in surviving Scottish “bairn“, Old English bearn, from a root meaning “carry”.

Incarnation” is not an English word; it has it’s roots in Latin: caro or carnis means “flesh”, so it is litearally “being made flesh”.  This is the mysterious truth described by the Apostle Paul:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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I like the word meld, because it sounds basic and hard-working and makes me think of blacksmiths forging swords and armor.  Another reason to like it I just discovered: it’s a mystery word; etymologists have not uncovered its origins.  We know it was around by 1910.  It might come from Canasta, in which a player can “meld” certain combinations of cards for a score.  This sense of the word is derived from the German melden, “to make known, announce”, going back to the Proto-Germanic attested in the Old English meldian: “to declare, tell, display, proclaim”.  Or meld might be a past participle of the word mell, of which I’ve never heard before today.   

 

What does mell mean, then?  It is a verb we received from the Old French way back as far as A.D. 1300, meaning “to mix, meddle”.  Aha!  I have heard it!  But only in the compound: pell-mell, “confusedly”. 

 

This brings us to meddle, another word I’m fond of.  It is said to come from the same Old French, who received their word from the Latin, miscere, still meaning “to mix.” 

 

Though they sound much the same when speaking these days, meddle doesn’t have too much to do with metal, and it’s too bad, given my unfounded association of blacksmiths with the word meld (which may or may not have anything really to do with meddle).  Metal is English’s inheritance of Latin’s borrowing from the Greek metallon, used to refer to ore, but originally applied only as a verb “to mine, to quarry.”  Etymonline.com says that though the origin of that Greek word is unknown, there is evidence to suggest its relation to metallan, “to seek after.”

 

Medley does have to do with meddle, however.  Surprisingly, this word made its debut in English referring to a “hand-to-hand” combat, waiting 150 years before it took on the meaning of “mixture, combination” and then another 150 years or so before being applied to music. 

 

Melody was hanging out in the French language, thence visiting English at about the same time that medley meant “combat.”  Melody has always had to do with music, though.  It came from the Greek melos, which has two roots seen in melisma (from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “a limb”??) and ode

 

Mellow can refer to music in the vernacular of the 21st century, but it actually began by referring to the characteristics of ripe fruit: “soft, sweet, juicy.”  It may have come from mele, “ground grain”, the root of meal, and been influenced by the Old English mearu, “soft, tender.”  Beginning in the 1680’s (less at present), mellow has described someone “slightly drunk.” 

 

This brings to mind the words mead and meadow, but they received their own article in 2007, so I’ll simply refer you there: http://ladyoflongbourn.blogspot.com/2007/04/mead.html

 

Before I close I would like to visit two other words that are similar (by reason of sharing all the same consonants) to meld:

Mold may be the most interesting, because it is the same word now, but its diverse definitions have had parallel (never-touching) evolutions. 

 

Mold meaning “hollow shape” from which we get the verb meaning “to knead, shape, mix, blend” has been part of the English vocabulary since A.D. 1200, originally “fashion, form; nature, native constitution, character”.  This came via the French from the Latin modulum “measure, model” from the same root as mode

 

Mold referring to the “furry fungus” is sometimes, especially outside of America, spelled mould, from moulen in the Old English related to the Old Norse mygla.  It is possible that these words derived from the Proto-Germanic root *(s)muk– and the Proto-Indo-European *meug– (found in the word mucus).  Or, it may come to us from the third definition of mold:

 

Mold, archaically, means “loose earth”.  In Old English molde meant “earth, sand, dust, soil, land, country, world”.  It is Proto-Germanic, attested in Old Frisian, Old Norse, Middle Dutch, Dutch, Old High German, Gothic.  Etymonline.com suggests that it also comes ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root *mele– “to rub, grind” (as, once again, the word meal).  It is strange to me, given the similar sounds, but apparently this word has no common etymology with molt

 

Middle is my final word for today, and I appreciate that it comes into this essay after the Old English word, molde, “earth”, because Tolkien paired middle and earth as the name of his fantasy world.  (I have absolutely no evidence, but I wonder if Tolkien thought there was some relation?)  Middel is the Old English form, from Proto-Germanic root *medjaz directly bringing us mid, “with, in conjunction with, in company with, together with, among” probably from the Proto-Indo-European *medhyo once more meaning “middle.” 

 

(my source is http://www.Etymonline.com)

To God be all glory, 

Lisa of Longbourn

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I used to wonder why parents and teachers and snobby kids a year ahead of me in school insisted against “ain’t.”  We used to chant to an offender, “Ain’t ain’t a word, ‘cause it ain’t in the dictionary.”  We lived in Texas, where they have their own brand of contractions and substitutions and pronunciations.  This probably resulted from the cultural blend of Mexican Spanish, rogue English, and a bit of patriotism to boot.  Some slang words were enshrined in Country Western Music, a segment of the arts arguably as qualified as Shakespeare to introduce expressions (and evidence says that Shakespeare did a lot of word-inventing).  For the most part, I imagine parents and teachers were doing a more mature version of our parroting chant: they just repeated what they’d been told was good and right.

 

As I’ve grown up, and denouncing slang has become less and less popular, I’ve formed some ideas about why it’s so bad.  What I have identified is: association, exclusion, comprehension, and preservation.

 

If you go to slang dictionaries like “Urban Dictionary” online, you will find some unsavory histories of words we use.  Prisoners and gangs will start to use a word differently than everyone in the outside world.  Maybe they’ll use it as a vivid metaphorical reference to some coarse or irreverent thing.  Or they can use it with a sort of morbid sarcasm where what is dreadful to decent people is celebrated by them.  As the usage of the word spreads (and why it may spread I’ll discuss in a following section), the original vulgarity is dulled because the new speakers don’t realize the origin.  This happens with respectable poetic quotes as well, so we shouldn’t be surprised.  It is sloppy to make the mistake whether the origin is noble or base.  However, parents don’t usually want their children to have a lot in common with criminals and gangs, so they discourage language associated with them and derived from their lifestyles.

 

Most of us have had experience with inside jokes.  A few people in the room know a story no one else does, and someone mentions it, and they all laugh while you feel left out and clueless.  Slang, especially when it starts, is like that.  People begin to use a word in a way that most people won’t recognize or understand.  They can’t go look it up in the dictionary.  There’s no history of literature by which to decipher the code in which the other individual is talking.  This could be intentionally deceptive on their part, like parents spelling words in front of their young children – or the individual using slang may be so unfamiliar with cultures outside his own that he doesn’t realize how specialized his speech is.  Slang uses words that already belong to English – words that have a meaning to most people.  It may not even be immediately apparent to either of you that misunderstanding is taking place.

 

Unlike learning a second language, where there are grammars and translation dictionaries and classes to take, picking up this exclusive language involves a sort of immersion.  You have to find out what that speaker is feeling and thinking, what experiences have built his past, to determine what he means when he uses a word that you and the rest of the world know means something he does not mean.  While I am an advocate for relationship and community, I value the ability to skip these elementary steps of familiarization to move on to benefiting each other by what you know, by being able to express feelings of approval or displeasure, the ability to share an experience side by side and know there is commonality because you can communicate it.  Language is a wonderful tool for these things, a tool being undercut by the prevalent use of slang.

 

Finally there is preservation.  This point may not carry as much weight with most people, but I believe it is important.  A conservative language is one that has access not only to the ideas in one’s own society, but also to far-distant and different cultures: geographically, socio-economically, and even over time.  Imagine if you didn’t have to learn Old English or endure the mediation of a translator to enjoy Beowulf.  What if the Bible read by the Puritans still made sense to us today?  As our language evolves, isn’t it possible that we are gradually losing the wisdom and values of the past, constantly innovating and evolving our identities and beliefs?  Aren’t our people crying out for peace, for stability, for the ability to commit to something and have it mean something?  Do we want to feel so isolated and lonely?

 

I’m not advocating that we all learn Old English now, or go back to the King’s English spoken by the colonists of the United States hundreds of years ago – though I support members of our present population studying the expressions of the past so that we can keep hold of what those ancestors have to offer us today.  I am not going to militate against poetry, or to fight new words for new inventions and discoveries.  If you use the word “nice” to mean “friendly,” I probably won’t think too much about whether you actually meant “precise” and “orderly” as a man used to mean when he used that word.  I will keep in mind that “might” has to do with strength and ability at least as much as “can” when mothers ridiculously correct their children from saying “Can I?” to “May I?”  My fascination for words and their meanings and histories will continue to hone my vocabulary, my ability to communicate with strength and economy.  And I suspect that when my children are tempted to adopt the street language of their days, I’ll join the ranks of parents past by discouraging the use of slang.

 

What will you do?

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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A while back I was at a Bible study where, if I were to summarize the point, we studied the justification for cussing.  It was one of the most frustrating Bible studies I have ever attended.  How can one take the clear statement of Paul in Ephesians 5 and make it mean nothing – or the very opposite?  Positions in the group ranged from situational ethicists to ultra-conservative to Christian libertarianism to utter liberality (without much Christian consideration). 

Hardest to refute, for me, at the time was the question of definition.  Who defines which words are profane, and which jokes are coarse?  And if the majority culture decides, what does that do to Christian absolutism – let alone the call not to be like the world?  I believe that the cultural inacceptability of certain words and topics is a remnant of a spiritual life in this civilization, not part of the ‘rudiments of the world’ to which Christians should not be conformed.  It is obvious, at least, that profanity is usually associated with non-Christian cultures. 

The Pyromaniacs give a refutation of this point at their blog, using the thrust and context of Paul’s words in Ephesians 5.  Phil Johnson says that cussing is the emblem of the godless brotherhood.  In lieu of real Christian community, their weak substitute for love is this commonality built on treating sacred things lightly and good things badly and modest things crassly.  Of such things they talk.  For such talk they laugh.  Paul was discouraging us from settling.  I prefer the edification of a loving assembly that urges me to align my perspective with God’s.  Not that we cannot make jokes!  We were made to laugh!  But laughter is crude that pokes fun at that which God has called serious.  Lightness in conversation leads to lightness in living. 

I’ve said enough for one post.  Read Team Pyro’s blog on cussing.  I tell you, it’s good.  And read my next post.  Comment, too.  I am interested in discussion.  Rules here are that comments may not contain any foul language. 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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