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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Language and Gender: the New English Pronoun

Something in the English language is changing, but not many people have noticed it. Maybe a teacher, here or there, has noticed it on one of their student’s papers, and thought it was an error. Or a pundit has railed against it in their column, or someone has written an angry note about it on their facebook page. But the average person is just making the change naturally, by themselves, without even noticing what they’re doing.

A reader of English in 1900 — or even 1950 — would have read the above paragraph and cringed at the horrible “mistakes” I made. It wasn’t a mistake, though; it’s a fundamental change in the English language. You’ve probably spotted it, given the title of this article. If not, here’s the way I “should” have written it:

Something in the English language is changing, but not many people have noticed it. Maybe a teacher, here or there, has noticed it on one of his student’s papers, and thought it was an error. Or a pundit has railed against it in his column, or someone has written an angry note about it on his facebook page. But the average person is just making the change naturally, by himself, without even noticing what he’s doing.

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Words of the Day: Norn, Oak, Objective, Subjective

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!

Norn

manondeltaA Norn is a kind of female spirit found in Norse theology, who can cause great toil and trouble, or bring blessings and happiness. There are a great many of them, but according to Snorri Sturluson, author of the Prose Edda, the three most important Norns are giantess sisters who draw water from the Well of Fate and with it water the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. The names of these three Norns were Urðr (wyrd, “fate” or simply “future”), Verðandi (derived from the Old Norse verb verða, “to become”) and Skuld (related to shall); thus they were all concerned with the future, in one way or another.

The origin of the name Norn is unknown. One possibility is that it is related to the Swedish word norna, “to warn, to speak secretly”, which may be imitative (like mutter, growl, and howl, the sound of the word imitates the sound itself). It may also be related to a word meaning “to twist, to twine”, and may refer to the twisting of fate, although the idea that the Norns wove the fate of the world appears to have been borrowed from Greek theology.

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Fiction and the Shamanic Journey

In a series of posts a few years ago, I talked about the function of fiction. What is it for? What purpose does it serve? After all, it’s all a pack of lies — and what’s more, it’s lies that everyone knows are false.

In that article I argued that fiction’s primary purpose was to change beliefs about how the world works. Even though it describes false events, the skillful author writes in such a way that the reader believes they could happen; and in doing so, can change the reader’s beliefs about what is possible, or the way the world works, or human nature. The readers of Tolkien may not end up believing in hobbits, but they may be more likely to believe in things like this:

  • There is a guiding force to events, which works indirectly through seeming ‘chance’ or ‘happenstance’ (e.g. Bilbo’s finding the Ring; the manner of the Ring’s destruction).
  • Despite this, people have free will, and the responsibility to choose wisely.
  • Loyalty to one’s king and country is a great virtue, as is military service when necessary.
  • Greed for power (and knowledge!) corrupts.
  • The world was once much more beautiful and pure than it is now.
  • Not all wrongs can be righted, but even tragedy can be beautiful.

Since then I’ve been thinking more about this, and I think I’ve found a perhaps more direct function of fiction. It’s a shamanistic technique, similar to meditation or trance, which actually operates directly on the reader’s subconscious or spiritual connections.

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Words of the Day: Muslim, Music, Mystic

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!

Muslim

howimvotingMuslim, and the related words salaam, Islam, and Salem, ultimately comes from Arabic salam, “peace”. In Arabic and other Semitic languages, a trio of consonants represents a sort of “core concept” which can be modified or expanded upon by various vowel combinations. In this case, s-l-m indicates “peace” or “safety”.

Salaam, which also means “peace”, is from the traditional Muslim greeting (as)salam ‘alaikum, “peace be upon you”.

Salem, a common name for towns in the Arabic, Hebrew, and European traditions, is from Hebrew, and also means “peace” (from Hebrew shalom, a cousin of Arabic salam). Jerusalem means “the foundation of peace”.

Islam means “submission” (to the will of Allah), in particular “retreat into safety”.

Muslim means “one who submits (i.e. retreats into safety)” (to the will of Allah). Note the prefix mu-, which indicates “one who…”, just as it does in Muhammad.

The s-l-m root begins with powerful, directed energy that expands like light to fill space, and results in manifestation. Given this, it would be a mistake to think of the s-l-m root as meaning “peace” in the sense of “quiet”. Instead, it’s closer to the phonosemantics of balm or calm – some action which manifests peace.

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Words of the Day: Medium, Mother, Muhammad

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!

Medium

meditationfailsMedium began life as me, a preposition meaning “between” in Proto-Indo European. A suffix dhyo was sometimes added to make this preposition into medhyo, an adjective meaning something analogous to “betweenish” or “middle”, e.g. “the middle house” (the one between the other two).

In Latin, medhyo became medius. That is, medius was used with masculine singular nominative nouns — but it could also be medii (masculine singular genitive), mediae (feminine singular genitive), and medium (neuter singular nominative), among others. It was this last form, of course, that was picked up by English in the 1500’s (when everybody who was anybody knew Latin) and used either as an adjective (as in Latin and PIE) or as a noun meaning “middle ground” — that which appears between other things.

Once in English, it began to acquire other, related meanings. In the 1600’s it began to be used to mean a channel of communication, and in 1853 it first appeared meaning a “person who conveys psychic messages”, from the idea that the psychic is acting as a channel of communication with the Spirit world.

Phonosemantically, the word starts with a manifestation / creation (”m”) which is carried forward over some distance (long “e”) to a decision or doorway “d”. Afterwards it may be carried further (long “e”) and released into thought (short “u”) before passing to a second manifestation (”m”). It’s striking, I think, how these sequence of sounds conveys the idea of a message generated at the beginning of the word, carried over distance and crossing a boundary, and released into thought — only to generate another message in return.

It’s fascinating to compare this to the word media: the plural form of the original Latin medius, used today as the plural of medium (but, interestingly, not for psychic mediums). Phonosemantically, it is identical to medium, except no return message is indicated. This fits beautifully with modern usage: television and movies and radio, one-way transmissions, are the media; but the internet isn’t — it’s called a medium.

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Words of the Day: Luck, May, Me, My, Mine

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!

Luck

lugh2007There are precious few words of completely unknown origin. This fact is a tribute to the last two hundred years of scholarship by historical linguists and philologists, professional and amateur.

But of course there are some tough words out there. Luck is one of those nuts that just won’t get cracked.

It first appeared around 1500 as lucke, borrowed from Dutch luc, meaning “happiness, good fortune”. This in turn was a clipping of gheluc, frequently used in gambling. It appears to be related to German Glück, “fortune, happiness”. But where did gheluc come from? No one has any idea at all!

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Words of the Day: Hobbit, Honest, I

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!

Hobbit

howimvotingiiThe word hobbit sprang without warning into Tolkien’s mind while he was grading exams. He simply found himself writing on the back of an exam page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. He didn’t know what a hobbit was, or what kind of hole it lived in… But he found the answers as he was weaving bedtime stories for his children — the stories that would, of course, be written down as The Hobbit.

Why did it come into Tolkien’s head? One possible source is the word rabbit. Tolkien vehemently denied that hobbits had anything to do with rabbits, although Bilbo Baggins is called a “rabbit” multiple times in the book. Many years after The Hobbit was written, Tolkien developed a fictional etymology for it: hobbit was a worn-down form of Old English hol-bytla, “hole-builder”. Perhaps Tolkien, a scholar of Old English, subconsciously had this in mind from the beginning. Another possible source is a mention of hobbits in long list of earth-spirits compiled by a 19th-century writer, a list which Tolkien may possibly have read and then forgotten about. In any case, other possibilities are (1) a word hobbe in Middle English which meant something like “small sprite” or “changeling”, and which Tolkien was probably aware of on some level, and (2) Hob, a nickname for Robin Goodfellow, a forest spirit.

It seems almost as if the syllable hob has always been there, floating around in the collective unconscious of English speakers, and has emerged at various times and places under the pen of various authors who happened to “hear” it.

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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!

Grammar

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…

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Words of the Day: Genius, Glorious, Gods and Guides

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!

Genius

hangedgodGenius comes from Proto Indo European gen, meaning something like “produce” or “generate”, the progenitor of generations of words of all kinds — including progenitor, generate, kind, kin, king, kindergarten, gentle, gender, general, generic, generous, indigenous, genesis, genital, nascent, natal, native, nation, renaissance, and a dozen others.

In Latin gen became the root of the verb gignere, “beget, produce”. This verb in turn was the root of the word genius, which in Roman times referred not to a person’s innate talent, but to a guardian spirit — a spirit guide. Originally, the genius was a guardian spirit who looked after a family; thus it was most likely associated with one’s ancestors (and thus the association with PIE gen is obvious). Later, genius came to mean one’s own personal spirit guides. Saying that someone “had a genius for cooking”, for example, meant that they had a spirit guide who helped them with cooking.

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Words of the Day: Faith, Fire, Free

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!

Faith

trustyourfeelingsFaith ultimately comes from Proto Indo European bhidh, meaning something like “persuade” or “compel”. When bhidh came into Latin, it became fidere, “to trust”, presumably because something sufficiently compelling would be trustworthy…

The nominal form was fides, which became feid in Old French and faith in English in 1250. It wasn’t used in a Christian sense until 1382, although apparently religions have been called “faiths” since about 1300.

Faith and many words that sound similar make up an interesting family. It begins with unfettered freedom (”f”) that is flexible and spreads out wide (long “a”), but is then drawn up along a “perilous path” (”th”). The idea appears to be that faith is the state of having one’s beliefs, which a priori are completely free and flexible, constrained onto a particular path. Faith, in other words, means limiting your beliefs.

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Words of the Day: Disco, Elephant, Faerie, Fairy, Fate

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!

Disco

childishpaganismDisco is the shortened form of discotheque, a French word meaning something like “nightclub with recorded dance music”. Discotheque was borrowed into most European languages (e.g. German Diskothek), as well as English, but it lasted just a short time in our language before being drastically shortened to disco. Originally it meant just the place where the music was played, but it soon was applied to the music as well.

The French word discotheque was itself borrowed from Italian discoteca, which meant “music library” (from disco, phonograph record, and –teca, by analogy with biblioteca, a book (biblio)-library). Thus the English clipping, disco, is identical with the original Italian word for phonograph record. This word refers to the disk-shape of the record, as you might expect.

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