Sodden Spring

Seattle, they say, is a rather wet city. But the last few days were sunny and warm, so I guess I was lulled into thinking (wishing? hoping?) that perhaps the worst of the showers were over. Late yesterday, in the golden late evening, Alison in a coat against the wind, and I in a light sweater, walked to the bicycle shop, a pleasant two miles away through neighborhoods abloom with daffodils and cherries and along the cedar-trimmed Green Lake. Her bike was waiting, freshly oiled and polished and adjusted and ready to go. I set out on foot for the return journey, while she rode in circles around me, testing her balance and getting back into the swing of riding after a two-year break. We made it less than a block before it started raining.

Seattle rain (in my limited experience of it) is generally gentle, misty, gusty, and fitful; it’s easily dealt with if you have a light coat. When the rain got harder and harder, I felt sure it would let up soon. But within five minutes it had turned into a serious downpour; and five minutes later, when the hail started, I told Alison to go on home, so that her bright bike wouldn’t suffer in the weather too much. I jogged soggily after her, my sweater quickly growing heavy and cold with the rain and ice. Surely it couldn’t go on like this much longer…!

Well, I was right, but by the time it let up, I was just a few blocks from home. As it turned out, Alison wasn’t far ahead, because the rain and darkness made it too dangerous to bike, and she’d had to walk most of the distance. When we got inside, panting and shivering and dripping icy water everywhere, Cu Gwyn did not approve at all.

Sodden is a delightful old word that goes back to Proto European seut, meaning “boil”. In Proto Germanic it became seuthanan, and in Old English seoþan; and this word eventually became modern English seethe. But the past participle of seoþan was soden; and this broke away from seethe and became an adjective in its own right, sodden. Since things that are boiled are also quite wet, sodden came to mean “soaked” as well as “boiled”. By the end of the 19th century, the “boiled” meaning was forgotten.

Sodden and sadden are similar in sound, and carry much the same phonosemantics: a promising fresh beginning, a turning point or doorway, and a fall to grounding and dissolution. While sadden carries the flat-ah vowel sound of sad, balanced and static, sodden has the short-o sound of sod, fundamental, Source, beginning. Despite its association with water, it is a word of returning to earth.

When Alison got out of the shower, she was beaming. “I think everyone remembers a day,” she said, “maybe in high school or college, when you went to a water park, or to a rainy soccer game or something, and you get totally soaking wet, and you had a fantastic time… I feel like that now.”

“Yup,” I said. “Busch Gardens, with the German club. May of 1991. I’ll always remember it.” The springtime of life, the springtime of the year, and the sodden blessing of rain on the earth.

Wilderness Among Us

Alison and I have been spending a lot of time in Seattle’s parks this spring, and it got me thinking about the word park. It’s an old Proto-Germanic word, originally parruk, a type of enclosure for animals, such as a sheep pen. By the mid 13th century it was used more to refer to enclosures for animals that would be hunted; and in the 1660’s in London, these enclosures were most often areas that were kept semi-wild so that the nobility could easily hunt inside the city. The step from that meaning to “any preserved natural area” was a short one.

“Parking” vehicles comes from the early 19th-century usage of arranging military vehicles in a park. Spiritually park is an enclosed, firmly rooted Source energy, but one which holds much motion and power.

One of my pet peeves is an old joke that is supposed to illustrate how insane English is: “it’s the only language where you park on a driveway and drive on a parkway.” Ha ha! Oh, such wit. This chestnut even has its own facebook page (which I’m not going to favor with a link — you can find it yourself if you’re so inclined). Why does it peeve me? It’s just an innocent little quirk of the language, after all. And English is pretty crazy, am I right?

Sigh. See, I’m a linguist, and I study languages like ornithologists study birdsong. For me, a languages are beautiful, delicate structures built up organically over thousands and thousands of years. They aren’t just crazy random collections of rules and words; they evolved, and they do things for a reason. They contain some weird things, just as evolution does some weird things (like, why is the left half of the body controlled by the right side of the brain?), but there’s a reason.

We park on a driveway because a driveway is a way though a yard, or on a property, where we can drive. Sometimes we do park in it, too, but that’s just because we can never find time to clean out the garage. And we drive on a parkway because a parkway is a way for us to drive through a park, or at least a landscaped, green area. There are all sorts of lovely nuances in these words as well — the fact that the modifiers drive and park carve out the semantic space, distinguishing themselves by the function of the “way” and the location of the “way” respectively. You can also distinguish “ways” by speed (speedway, expressway), cost (freeway, tollway), size (broadway, alleyway), the type of vehicle or moving object (railway, motorway, bikeway, walkway, footway, headway), the distance (halfway, midway), what you do while traveling it (raceway, runway), the “surface” (waterway, airway, stairway, subway), direction or path (beltway, byway), the paving surface (causeway, from Latin via calciata, “paved way”), and how lovely it is (fairway). There are subtle rules for creating new compounds, too — if I tell you they’re installing a fishway on the dam, you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelash; but if I try and use a word like congressmanways to talk about the halls of Congress, you’d look at me like I’m nuts. You know, subconsciously, that “way” only works for regularly traveled paths, and it really likes to combine only with nouns of only one or maybe two syllables, accented on the first syllable for preference.

English isn’t crazy — it’s subtle and beautiful. You just have to be patient with it, respect it, and pay attention to it; then it will reveal its beauty.

Like birdsong. Like anything that’s wild.

Moon

The moon was full this morning in Virgo — an earth sign ruled by the messenger god Mercury. What better time to bring the moon to earth? And by coincidence (?), just as the Earth was placed directly between the sun and moon, the sun reached out with a massive solar flare.

Moon comes from Proto Indo European meses or menses, the word used for both moon and month; and this in turn was probably derived from the root me, meaning “measure”. Menses (which of course is also the ancestor of Latin menses, “months”, now used to refer to uterine discharge) descended into Proto Germanic as maenon and Old English as mona.

Spiritually the word moon indicates an orb of manifestation and making, particularly the creation of of flowing, fast, wholesome energy which grounds and returns to Source. You can see this echoed in the sorts of idioms surrounding the word: shoot the moon, moon-eyed, over the moon.

The origin of the popular rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle” are completely unknown, though personally I’m inclined to the theory that it’s a mnemonic for remembering the some of the constellations.

There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
One night to drink his fill…

–Tolkien

Storm and Throng

Last night a whopper of a storm raged through Pittsburgh, with thunder in hordes and lightning thronging. For hours it bellowed and shouted, grumbled and threatened, like an old man sitting on the porch, banging his stick and raging against the government. Finally it huffed off, leaving only a gentle rain to greet the dawn. Now it’s all past, and the day is fresh, green, and breezy.

Storm is from Proto Germanic sturmaz, and belongs to that class of uniquely German words that are unrelated to any other branch of the Indo-European language family. It became sturm in German, familiar to most people in the expression Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress” or “Storm and Yearning”), and storm in Old English. Spiritually the word encapsulates the lightning (“st” = the bright energy in motion), the thunder (“or” = the grounding, the power) and the new life that a storm invariably spawns (“m” = manifestation). It’s an awesome word; no wonder it was borrowed into Old French (estour) and Italian (stormo).

Speaking of Drang, it is probably from Proto Indo European trenk (“beat, press”), and came into Proto Germanic as thrangan. At this time it had connotations of pressure and pushing, as well as crowdedness and tumult. In German the ‘crowding’ meaning was lost, leaving the pressure, urging, yearning. In English, however, the ‘pressure’ meaning was lost, leaving the idea of a crowd: Old English gethrang, modern English throng. Spiritually, Drang is a door opening with forceful authority, reverberating, generating power. Throng has the same sense of power and reverberation, but instead of a door, it is a perilous path.

“Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thought that is forever flowing through one’s head.” – Twain

Oddments

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated the blog, because (drum roll please!) I finally finished a huge set of revisions to Mere America: First Nations, my novella of an alternate-history America which explores the effect of geography and the land on the history of America. I noted yesterday on Google+ that American civil religion is founded in part on the idea of the land being granted to us, with a special place in God’s plan, on analogy with Israel; and I wanted to go deeply into the question of what parts of America’s character derived from us as a people, and what parts were dependent on accidents of geography. In this edition there is a whole new prologue and extensive revisions to the section on the Vikings landing in British Columbia, thanks to excellent feedback from Kara-Leah. If you’ve already bought a copy, you should get a message from Amazon about updating to the new version. If you haven’t already bought a copy — feel free to click here at your earliest convenience. 🙂

Mere America

Snake, Serpent, Drake, Dragon

Ali and I almost jogged right over a great black snake in the park this morning. Alison said:

Black snake stretched, unwound across the path. We stopped to watch in the steam and sun-slant of morning as it melted back into the brush.

It was about three or four feet long, and a few inches thick. To me it looked like water: a jet-black trickle of liquid, flowing across the path, almost painfully slow. It brought to mind the discussion we had on our recent prodcast about Harry Potter, Nagini, and the Midgard Serpent.

What is it about snakes?… There is a passage I always think of, from Kipling’s Kim, in which a Tibetan lama and his disciple, Kim (the English boy raised by native Indians) stumble upon a cobra as they are seeking a mystic river.

“Look! Look!” Kim sprang to [the lama’s side] and dragged him back. A yellow and brown streak glided from the purple rustling stems to the bank, stretched its neck to the water, drank, and lay still — a big cobra with fixed, lidless eyes.

“I have no stick — I have no stick,” said Kim. “I will get me one and break his back.”

“Why? He is upon the Wheel as we are — a life ascending or descending — very far from deliverance. Great evil must the soul have done that is cast into this shape.”

“I hate all snakes,” said Kim. No native training can quench the white man’s horror of the Serpent.

“Let him live out his life.” The coiled thing hissed and half opened its hood. “May thy release come soon, brother,” the lama continued placidly. “Hast thou knowledge, by chance, of my River?”

“Never have I seen such a man as thou art,” Kim whispered, overwhelmed. “Do the very snakes understand thy talk?”

“Who knows?” He passed within a foot of the cobra’s poised head. It flattened itself among the dusty coils.

“Come thou!” he called over his shoulder.

“Not I,” said Kim. “I go round.”

Snake

Snake comes from Proto Indo European sneg or snag, meaning ‘crawl’ and ‘creep’. This became snakon in Proto Germanic, snaca in Old English, and snake in Middle English. For a long time people preferred to use the word serpent, borrowed from French; but eventually the native English word pretty much won out.

Snake is a word that carries intimations of increase and fertility, as well as grounding and dispersal of energy, rising power, and containment — all of which well fits a creature so close to the ground, but with the power to strike through the air suddenly.

Serpent

Serpent is from Proto Indo European serp, which meant ‘creep’ (just as sneg/snag did). Serp became the Latin verb serpere, ‘to creep’, and a thing that crept was a serpent. The word was borrowed into Middle English and almost replaced the native snake.

Spiritually serpent has the same sense of increase and fertility, but has more connotations of power directed at a point.

Drake, Dragon

These words come from Latin draco, ‘dragon’; drake was borrowed directly, and dragon came through French. The Latin word came from the Greek drakon, from Proto Indo European derk ‘to see’ (since Greek dragons had the Evil Eye).

Drake, like serpent, is a word of directed motion, but more associated with decision; and like snake, has connotations of rising power and containment. Dragon has a more luxurious energy — decisive motion, but towards grounding, gathering, Source.

Musings on Wild and Goose

Ali and I just got back from the Wild Goose festival, a gathering of “emergent” Christians — those who, broadly speaking, are seeking a way to reconcile Biblical authority and church teachings with issues of justice, technological and social change, and the place of Christianity as one religion among many. It was fascinating to spend time among so many Christians — none of whom proselytized at us, lectured us, or pitied our poor damned souls, but were welcoming, open-minded, and, in many cases, brilliant and inspiring.

All of which I’ll write a lot more about later. For now I want to share a quick story that moved me, and think a bit about the words wild and goose.

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Sun, Summer, Summit

This trio of words — inspired by the Summer Solstice — are completely unrelated historically, but their phonosemantics are remarkably similar.

Sun

Sun derives from Proto Indo European swen or suwen, a slightly modified version of the base form saewel, which meant both “sun” and “to shine”. Old English sunne was a feminine noun, and originally all references to the sun assumed that it was female (as in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth — and you may be sure that this was something Tolkien was quite aware of). The sun only became male in English in the 1500’s, long after the noun itself no longer had gender. Phonosemantically sun indicates powerful directed energy (”s”), narrowing toward a goal (”n”), but nevertheless suffused with relaxed, thoughtful qualities (short “u”). Perhaps this reflects the paradoxical power of the sun to both bake you in its heat and lull you to sleep on a golden afternoon.

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The Sea and the Soul

The Proto Indo Europeans of the steppe near the Black Sea had no word for “ocean”. They had mori or mari, meaning “lake” or “sea,” but this most likely referred to the sparkling quality of its surface (cf PIE mer, “clear, sparkle”) and did not carry connotations of vast continent-wrapping waters. When the Indo Europeans started moving and trading around Eurasia, riding their horses and carts and spreading their culture wherever they went, they often found they needed a word for “ocean.” Usually they simply borrowed the word of whoever happened to be living nearby.

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Moss, Mire

This week we’re in Charleston, South Carolina, visiting the Angel Oak. It’s considerably sunnier and wetter here than it is back in Pittsburgh: the earth is sandier, the blue skies paler, and the waters warmer. In the morning we went out jogging past the stately homes, the gardens lush with semitropical bushes, huge magnolias, and towering pines. In many places the yards showed the ongoing struggle of the suburbanite to grow grass everywhere, everywhere in America, even in places that would much rather be, say, a sandy beach, or a peat bog. As we ran, we ducked under the hanging Spanish moss, one of my favorite plants of the deep South.

Spanish moss is not moss at all, really, but a kind of bromeliad, related to the pineapple, and native only to the Americas. Like many bromeliads, it grows in the air, attached to other plants (or poles or telephone wires), and thrives in areas of high humidity. The island of Barbados (from Portuguese “bearded”) was named after the Spanish moss growing there.

The Proto Indo European root meu meant both “moist” and “marsh”; it is the ancestor of Latin mucus (eww) and Proto Germanic musan, meaning “marsh,” “bog,” “mire,” and a plant that often grows there: “moss.” Musan became meos in Old English and moss in modern English. Meanwhile, musan became myrr in Old Norse, which was borrowed into English as mire. These words both carry the spiritual notion if manifestation, creation, in recognition of the tremendous life-fostering power of those areas where land and water mix in equal parts. Moss also has earthiness and growth, increase; while mire has strong motion, power, movement, and suggests an almost malevolent agency of entrapment.

Oddments

  • We procrastinate all our lives. Perhaps we know deep down we are immortal, and that eventually all men will do and know all things. – Borges
  • When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze. -Carlyle

Rain, Wind

It’s been a cold, rainy spring here in southwestern Pennsylvania, and though there are lilies blooming in the garden and birds clamoring in the yard, I’m nevertheless wrapped under two blankets, the windows are shut tight and the rain and wind are beating at the glass.

3 AM – I am awake to the downpour, dark rains swelling the land, my bones themselves seeming waterlogged until they are spongy and wrinkled.

4:11 AM – The first bird opens his throat to swallow the dark in rising song slipping in between the rain. The land awakening, dawn remade. – Ali

Rain

Rain is probably from Proto Indo European reg, meaning “moist, wet”, related to Latin rigare (whence we get irrigate). In Proto Germanic reg became regna, and in Old English, regn, contracted to rain in Middle English. Spiritually the word indicates motion through initiation towards groundedness and release; it echoes the sentiments of many who feel that a shower is a baptism of the earth.

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Temperance, Terror, Torch, Torture

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!

Temperance

Ultimately, temperance comes from Latin tempus, “time”. No one knows where Latin picked up tempus – most likely from some nearby language, such as Etruscan. In any case, it’s also the root of words such as temple, temporary, tempo, extemporize, and tempest. From tempus came the Latin verb temperare, “to mix properly, moderate, blend”, in the sense of cooking or preparing something to the proper time. This was the source of temper (Old English temprian), and also of the Latin noun temperantia, “moderation”. Temperantia was borrowed into Anglo-French (i.e. the French spoken by the upper-classes in England after William the Conqueror) as temperaunce, which became temperance by the mid-1300’s.

The very oldest versions of the Temperance Tarot card show a figure mixing water into wine, thereby showing temperantia, moderation.

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Sphere, Spirit, Stone

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!

Sphere

Sphere comes from the beautiful Greek word sphaira, which meant “globe” or “ball”. By the time it entered Middle English around 1300, it was spelled spere and referred only to the crystalline sphere believed to surround the world. By 1390, its meaning had extended to its original and modern sense. In Shakespeare’s time, when spellings were becoming standardized, the “h” was added back in and the pronunciation changed to reflect its distinguished Greek pedigree.

Sphere is a ball of energy. It starts with directed energy (”s”) that is completely free (”f”) — perhaps indicating that it can go in all three dimensions. The energy continues for an extended period (long “e”) with great force (”r”). The sound of the word sphere thus seems to imply expansion.

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Sacrifice, Sacrilegious, Savior

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!

Sacrifice

Sacrifice comes from Latin sacrificium, meaning “sacred action” (from sacra, “sacred”, and ficium, “to do”). It was used to refer to the performance of any priestly duties. Since these duties almost always involved giving something to the gods, sacrifice came to mean, first, giving something up to Spirit, and then later (in the late 1500’s in English) giving something up in general.

As for sacra “sacred”, it derives ultimately from Proto Indo European sak, meaning “sanctify”; and it is the basis for consecrate, sacerdotal, saint, sanctum, sacrosanct, and sanctify.

Sacrifice’s primary syllable, sac, is identical with that ancient Proto Indo European root sak from 8,000 years ago. It indicates directed, balanced energy (”sa”) pouring into a container (”k”); metaphorically, then, the energy is the sacrifice, and Spirit is the container. The same phonosemantics work for the rather more mundane word sack.

Thanks to Erik for suggesting this word of the day.

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Poetry, Prose, Praise, Prayer

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!

Poetry, Prose

Poetry began life as the Proto Indo European root kwoiwo, meaning “making”. It entered Greek as poein, “to make or compose”; the derived word poetes meant “maker” or “author”. From there it came into Latin as poeta, “author, poet”, and thence into Old French as poete and 14th century English as poet.

Prose, meanwhile, started out as a compound word in Latin: proversa, from pro (”forward”) + versus (”turning”), meaning “straightforward, direct”. It was shortened over time to prosa, and used in the phrase prosa oratio, referring to “straightforward speech” (i.e. without all that versification nonsense). From Latin it passed briefly through Old French before entering English about the same time that poetry did.

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Om, Pagan, Paradise

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!

Om

From Wikipedia:

OM is a mystical or sacred syllable in the Dharmic [i.e. Hinduism, Buddhism, and other closely related] religions. It is placed at the beginning of most Hindu texts as a sacred exclamation to be uttered at the beginning and end of a reading of the Vedas or previously to any prayer or mantra.

Wikipedia also compares Om to Amen; in this connection it’s interesting to add also the Revival Druid exhortation Awen.

It first appears in ancient Vedic Sanskrit manuscripts, meaning something like “yes”, “verily”, “so be it” — much like Amen. As time went on and Hinduism developed, it came to mean something much more profound. It is variously described as

  • a magnificent syllable for meditation
  • the goal of all spritual practice
  • the utterance of the perfect soul at death
  • the voice of God
  • the mystic name of the union of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma
  • the principle of three-in-one
  • the sound of the universe’s vibration

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