Words of the Day: Grammar, Hand, Hiawatha

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!


purposethroughcompassionUltimately from Proto Indo European gerbh, “to scratch”; also the ancestor of carve, crab, crayfish, crawl, and graph. Interestingly, Proto Indo European had another root, ghrebh, which also meant “to scratch”, and is the ancestor of grub, groove, and grave. It’s hard to believe that ghrebh and gerbh are unrelated, but 8000 years later, there appears to be no evidence either way.

Gerbh became graphein, “to write” in ancient Greek, and from this was derived gramma, “letter”. The Greek phrase grammatike tekhne, the “art of letters”, referred to philology and literature. Latin borrowed this as grammatica, which became grammaire “learning” in Old French, and was grafted into English in the late 1100’s as gramarye.

In Middle English, gramarye referred to “learning in general”, including astrology and magic. In Scots English, the word came to mean especially occult knowledge, and evolved into glamour before being borrowed back into the main trunk of English through the writings of Sir Walter Scott. From this came glamorous in the 1880’s. Think of that when you hear a celebrity described as glamorous, or see a picture of a glam rocker…

In modern linguistics, a grammar is usually defined as a formal system that describes, with mathematical precision, all the possible expressions in a human language. That is, if you know the grammar of language L, you can tell whether or not a given expression is grammatical in L. No complete grammar of any human language has been fully described by linguists, although children learn about 99% of at least one human grammar by age 5.

It’s not surprising that the word grammar has had such a glamorous history, since its phonosemantics are wrapped up with intimations of power and manifestation. “Gr” is a powerful emanation from Source, an emanation that is balanced and even (short “a”), and results in manifestation (”m”). The “ar” at the end, which is really a syllabic “r” (that is, “r” pronounced as a vowel) lends a sense that the grammar itself is an agent with its own agenda.


onthanksgivingStandard etymological reference works will tell you that hand goes back to Proto Germanic handaz, meaning “hand” (the –az is the nominative singular masculine suffix, like –us in Latin), and pretty much nothing remarkable has happened since then — hand has not changed its meaning or its sound in two thousand years. Handaz was apparantly an innovation of Proto Germanic; it has no ancestor in Proto Indo European.

But something decidedly odd was going on in Proto Indo European with regards to this word. Proto Indo European did have a word for hand men, which is the ancestor of Latin manus and, from Latin, English manual, mandible, manuscript, manage, etc. Why didn’t men get passed down into Proto Germanic? And for that matter, why wasn’t men passed down into any of Proto Indo European’s other daughter languages? For example, Proto Celtic decided to switch to pela, meaning “flat” (related to English palm); and Proto-Slavic dropped the idea entirely — Russian has no word for “hand”, only a word for “forearm”!

I discussed this at length last year in a couple of my first posts, Taboos in Proto Indo European and What did Hand Mean Before it Meant Hand?. I suggested that the Indo European god of the sun was associated with hands — both because of the strength and creative energy of the sun, and because the sun’s rays can be seen as its fingers — and because of this, the word men (hand) became holy — in fact, it became taboo, too holy to say. Because men was no longer available, possibly the ancient Proto Germanic speakers decided to use a euphemism to refer to their own hands; and they may have chosen the Proto Indo European root kandaz, meaning “brilliance” (and ancestor of candle and possibly kindle), so as to make the connection with the sun god clear, but not overt enough to be rude. But in Proto Germanic, a great many sounds had changed; so instead of saying kandaz, they said handaz.

Thus, our word “hand” may be descended from a word referring to the light of the sun.

Be that as it may, it’s instructive to compare the phonosemantics of hand versus the old word men. Men begins with making, manifesting (”m”), proceeds with hard-working connector short “e”, and heads toward a noble goal (”n”). The emphasis here appears to be on solid achievement — very appropriate for hands. (It also says something interesting about the English word men!) Hand, on the other, um, hand, starts off with a primal source, home-energy (”h”), proceeds in a balanced, flat manner (short “a”) toward a noble goal (”n”) and concludes with a doorway / decision — an ending that is also a new beginning. Hand, then, is a word that emphasizes the larger context of goal achievement, from the ultimate source energy to the aftereffects of the action.


appalachiantrailLet us now plant a symbolic tree of long leaves destined to grow tall and strong. It will represent your unity and strength. When other nations wish to accept the good Tidings of Peace and Power, they shall be seated within the Confederacy Council. Atop the tall tree will proudly sit an all-seeing eagle to watch and warn you of any danger.

Let each Chief now bring one arrow to form a bundle of arrows. Tie them together so tightly that they cannot be bent or broken apart. Place the bundle of arrows beside the Council Fire as another symbol of your unity and strength.

Let us join hands firmly, binding ourselves together in a circle. If a tree should fall upon the circle, your circle cannot be broken. Your people can thus be assured of your unity and peace.

The Great Peacemaker of the Haudenosaunee

Six hundred years ago, in the Finger Lakes region of what is now New York State, the young chief of the Onondaga tribe could not sleep. He would stay up late at night, wakeful, watching his wife and three daughters sleeping. He could feel there was a great change coming in the world.

At last one day he was visited by a seer, who told him that Peace and Power were coming; strife would end, and peace would prevail. The seer prophesied that the young chief should be called Hiawatha, that is, “he who combs”, and asked Hiawatha to help him promote peace among all the tribes. He also warned Hiawatha that an evil magician lived on the other side of a nearby lake, and to watch out for him.

When the seer left, heading ever eastward on his mission to carry the message of peace, Hiawatha continued in his duties as chief; but soon thereafter, one by one, his daughters died. In sorrow, Hiawatha left the Onondagas and traveled from tribe to tribe, carrying the message of peace that the seer had told him of. By this time, the seer was known throughout the Finger Lakes as the Great Peacemaker.

At last, after some time, when Hiawatha had traveled the length and breadth of New York, and even been named the chief of the Mohawk tribe, he and the Great Peacemaker visited a terrible magician who lived on the shores of Onondaga Lake. His hair was a mass of snakes, and he reigned over that region with terror. It was this same magician who had killed Hiawatha’s daughters; and he utterly refused to accept the message of peace. But Hiawatha spoke to him, and sang to him, and told him stories, using all he had learned of oratory and persuasion; and at last Hiawatha saw that the magician was smiling at him.

“I accept your message of peace and power,” he said.

With that, Hiawatha was overjoyed; and he began to comb the snakes from the hair of the evil magician. In this way, Hiawatha earned his name. When he had finished, the magician, whose name was Atotarho, took Hiawatha’s place as chief of the Onondagas; and they began the great work of forging the Senecas, Oneidas, Onondagas, the Cayugas, and Mohawks into one people, the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Long House.

In these latter days the Haudenosaunee are usually called the Iroquois. The government forged by them was used as a model for the US Constitution; and you can see the eagle and the bound bundle of arrows in the Great Seal of the United States. Of all the peoples native to the area governed by the United States, the Iroquois have probably been most successful in maintaining their tribal identity and independent government, and they continue to make strides towards regaining full independence.

Hiawatha’s name tells a story of energy that arises from home and hearth, skilled in matters of the mind and art, with an unwavering connection to Spirit. Through force of will, a difficult journey is undertaken, the outcome of which is a stronger connection to Source.

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