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!
There 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!
Quite apart from that, the meaning of luck is a complex and difficult thing. Luck, after all, is not always necessarily good — there is such a thing as bad luck! Luck seems to mean something like “happenstance beyond one’s control”; but depending on your personal beliefs about the forces that control the universe — hard laws of statistics, complete God-controlled predestination, or something else entirely — luck can be very different things. Remarkably, however, the modern concept of luck appears to be very similar to the ancient Anglo-Saxon idea of wyrd, which literally may be translated “that which comes around, that which comes to pass”, but is quite nuanced. The Wikipedia article on wyrd is fascinating:
In a simple sense, Wyrd refers to how past actions continually affect and condition the future, but also how the future affects the past. Indeed, for a true comprehension it is key for the Wyrd to be embraced as a conceptual mystery, wherein the tides and tidings of time and timelessness flow and weave always, entwining the reticulum of the fabric of being and non-being. The Wyrd also foregrounds the interconnected nature of all actions and how they influence each other. Wyrd, though conceptually related, is not congruent with predestination. Unlike predestination, the concept of Wyrd allows for one’s wyrd or agency: albeit agency constrained by the wyrds or activities of others, but nevertheless capable of weaving reality…
“Entwining the reticulum of the fabric of being and non-being”! (Who do they get to write this stuff?)
Anyway… back to luck. The primary energy in luck is relaxed and roomy, and sense is of a suffuse, all-encompassing energy that is contained. The energy is thus at once everywhere and diffuse, and yet local and controlled. A fitting paradox for a mysterious word of contradictions!
Proto-Indo European had two words, meg and magh, which were similar in sound and meaning, and may have originally been the same word. By the time these two words reached English, they both sounded like may.
Meg meant “great, strong”, and is the root behind words like magnitude, magnum, magnate, major, majority, mayor, majesty, maestro, master, maximum, matador, omega, maharajah, and Mahatma. In Latin it became part of the name of Maia, the goddess of spring, whose name simply means “the great one (feminine singular)”. And of course, she gave her name to the month of May. (Note: there is also a Greek goddess Maia, but her name is derived from the PIE root ma, which is mother.)
Magh meant “to be able, to have power”, and is the root behind might, Matilda, machine, mechanism, Magi, magic, archmage, and (just barely possible) Amazon. It’s also behind the English modal auxiliary may (e.g. you may have some candy). May, like all Germanic modal auxiliaries, actually has two meanings that are subtly different: an “epistemic” meaning and a “deontic” meaning.
- Epistemic: factual status. You may be right. It may rain.
- Deontic: social status (permission, obligation). You may have some candy. You may call me “Bob”.
The “m” of may signifies creative force, and the long “a” sound following it does nothing but expand and extend that creation. In the original PIE roots, the creative power came to a conclusion with “g” or “gh”, both of which may have signified a return to Source — the garden, the grail, grace. But in modern English, since may is an open syllable (i.e. there are no closing consonants), the creative surge simply continues; which makes it one of the most powerful possible simple syllables.
Me, My, Mine
Me, my and mine are all that’s left of a family of related pronouns that once included terms like mec and mes. In Proto Indo European, the first person pronoun (the pronoun that referred to oneself) had two basic forms, eg and me: eg for subjects, me (pronounced “meh”) for the rest. Me also had various suffixes to indicate its case marking: me for accusative, mene or moi for the genitive, meghio or moi for the dative, moi for instrumental or locative, and med for ablative. If we still had those forms in modern English, we’d be saying things like this:
- Do you like me?
- That iPhone is mene; OR that iPhone is moi.
- Give meghio that iPhone; OR give moi that iPhone.
- John moved the couch with moi.
- Throw the stick to moi.
- Throw the stick away from med.
Me descended almost unchanged over 8000 years into English, but its variant forms dropped away — except for mene, which became mine, and moi, which became my.
All of these forms begin with manifestation. Me, the “default” and most common form, manifests long term stamina; this may be related to the fact that it is in the objective case, and therefore metaphorically is an object, which is a passive thing that endures the action of the subject. My, a determiner (like a and the) which serves to help pick out the noun it modifies, manifests expansive mind and art (it’s not clear to me what this has to do with possession). Mine, meanwhile, is a noun like me, and here the energy of my is narrowed to a specific target.
It’s fascinating that all these forms begin with the “m” of motherhood and manifestation. Does this serve to point up the notion that we, too, are “made” things, manifestations of something?