Words of the Day: Blue, Book, Bound

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Blue

abyssFrom Proto Indo European bhlewas, meaning “light colored”, applicable to anything from yellow to light gray to pale blue. In Proto Germanic this became bluwaz, and descended into Frankish as blao and Old French as bleu; this was borrowed as bleu or blwe in Middle English (when spelling was a creative art). Old English already had a perfectly good word for blue — blaw – but the French term was preferred. It’s uncertain exactly when the word changed from meaning “light colored” to “blue”, but color words tend to be slippery in that way — in Scandinavian languages, for example, it came to mean a deep black, while in Middle High German it meant “yellow”.

Energetically, blue is much like a fountain of water — a burst of liquid energy, flowing, fast-moving. Compare it to its homophone blew, and remember the music named after it, the Blues – these words have the same energy.

Book

barackobamareadingFrom Proto Indo European bhago, a beech tree. The beech is an excellent tree for carving one’s initials in, and in ancient times people would make a staff of beech and carve runes into it. Apparantly the practice was common enough that when the Proto-Germans first saw a book, they called it a “beech”. Bhago is also the source of the word beech and buckwheat, because the seeds of buckwheat resemble beech nuts.

Book has an interesting phonosemantics, combining a sudden and powerful onset (”b”) with an open, roomy, relaxed energy (short “u”), all wrapped up in a neat package (”k”). It’s as though the package has enough room for all kinds of feelings and thoughts — sudden, gentle, powerful, and relaxed.

Bound

ire430bBound is one of those words with many meanings, which always makes the phonosemantics interesting. For that reason I’m going to look at this word in the reverse of my usual order: I’ll look at the sound of the word first, and then look at each of its conventional meanings in turn.

Bound starts with a burst of energy (”b”, balanced and flat (short “a”), but nevertheless fast-moving and rounded (long “u”). The energy resolves by narrowing on a target (”n”), which is a decision or doorway (”d”).

The first, most common meaning of bound – a “leap” — has had a long and strange journey from its origin in Greek, bombus, a “deep echoing sound”, which was imitative — that is, the word was created to sound like its meaning. Bombus was borrowed into Latin, and then in Vulgar Latin it acquired a diminutive suffix and became bombitire, “to buzz or hum”. This came into Old French as bondir, “to echo back”, but its meaning changed quickly to mean “rebound” or “bounce back”. Finally, in the late 1500’s it reached English in its modern form, with its modern meaning. The phonosemantics seem to match this meaning quite well, although it’s interesting that the sound of the word implies a target of some sort.

Then we have bound, “fastened together”, as in book binding; this is directly from the old Proto Indo European bhendh, which meant — you guessed it — “to bind”. The sound of the word indicates explosive or scattered energy gathered towards a target, which fits even better than the “leap” meaning.

Next is bound, “limit”, now chiefly found in expressions like out of bounds and walking the bounds, as well as the root of the word boundary. This one comes from Middle Latin bodina, which has an uncertain origin, but may be from Gaulish — which would make it one of the very few words in English of Celtic origin. The relation between meaning and sound is rather more obscure here, but it may reflect a sense of the landscape (metaphorical or otherwise) being an expansive area, which is brought to a limit or target point at the boundary.

Finally there is bound, “headed”, as in we’re bound for glory, or he’s bound for France, or (more metaphorically) she’s bound to be promoted. This comes from Old Norse buinn, meaning “prepared”; no one knows why the final “d” was added, unless it was by analogy with bind. Phonosemantically it may be understood as a journey which begins with great energy, and is narrowed and targeted in some way.

Comments

  1. Fascinating, I am a bookbinder, a more knowledgeable one now.

    Thank you.

    Richard

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Richard!

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