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 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.
An infant has a number of different kinds of cries, depending on what she wants. For example, she cries out la for milk, and ma for mother, and da for father. Unlike most human skills, these cries come factory-direct, pre-programmed, so that parents will know how to help the child. Why these sounds are chosen for these meanings, I don’t know — although in the case of la, it seems likely that if a child is crying and desperately trying to nurse at the same time, licking the air in forlorn hope, what you’ll get is la-la-la.
Be that as it may, ma is the root of the word mother in the Indo European language family, as it is in most languages around the world. Proto Indo European had mater, consisting of ma + ter, ter being a general suffix for kinship (also found of course in father, sister, brother, and daughter). Mater was handed down from Proto Indo European into Proto Germanic, Western Germanic, and English pretty straightforwardly — by Old English we have moder, and the d changed to th by the early 1500s.
Mother starts off appropriately enough with the “m” of manifestation, and then passes into a place of calm and serenity (short “u”). The ending is “th”, but note it is a voiced “th” — not the “th” of thin, but the “th” of that. This “th” — sometimes written as “dh” (Tolkien was fond of this spelling; you can find it in some of his names, for example Calenardhon, from Sindarin cale (green) nardh (realm) on (great), Great Green Province, the old name for Rohan) — has a slightly different meaning from “th”; instead of taking one down a perilous path, it has more of a sense of pointing or indicating, as in these, those, this, that. Nevertheless, a turbulent passage is indicated, just as the air is made turbulent between the tongue and the teeth when the sound is spoken. The final sound is a syllabic “r” — that is, “r” acting like a vowel, and taking up the whole syllable by itself, infusing the word with agentive energy. Being a mother, like being a farmer or a butcher or a preacher, is a calling, a profession.
It’s interesting to compare the moders of Old English with the mothers of today. In Old English times, the moder was the agent of manifestation (”m”) who provided energy that was well-rounded, whole, earthy (long “o”) and delivered the child to the doorway (”d”). Now, the manifestation is the same, but the mother provides a place of serenity (”u”) and ends by pointing out a perilous path (”dh”). Notably, this change happened around 1500 — just about the time in English history when societal change began to accelerate, and mothers no longer knew what kind of world their children would grow up in.
Muhammad is from Arabic, a language of the Semitic language family. Muhammad comes from the Proto-Semitic root hmd, “praise, extol”, from which came the verb hammada, “to praise highly”. From that was derived the adjective muhammad, “praised; commendable”. Muhammad, then, means “the Praiseworthy” — similar to the original meaning of the English word worship .
Since this name is Semitic in origin, there are some curious linguistic features here that aren’t present in most English etymologies. Note that the “h” in Muhammad, hmd, and hammad isn’t really an “h” sound as in English; instead, it’s pronounced like the “ch” in German Bach, except rather further back in the throat. Arabic has a fair number of consonants pronounced deep in the throat in this way. Native English speakers tend to hack and gargle when they first try to pronounce these consonants, but in the skilled larynx of a native Arabic speaker, they are quite beautiful. Second, notice that the Proto-Semitic root hmd has no vowels at all. This is not because it was pronounced with no vowels, but because the vowels were on a separate root. In Semitic languages, consonant roots and vowel roots are interleaved to create words. In this case, the vowel root a-a-a (probably indicating a verb, but honestly I’m just making an educated guess) combines with hmd to create hammada.
The primary syllable of Muhammad is “-hamm-”; it recalls the English word home, but instead of the vowel indicating a healthy, earthy energy, it is a connection to Source. In “-hamm-”, the Source energy originates from a place of safety and belonging, and results in manifestation. The first syllable, “mu-”, shows that the secure Source energy is manifested in a thoughtful and relaxed way; while the final syllable, “-ad”, shows that the manifestation of Source energy leads to a final decision.
There was a striking quote I ran into this week that gave me pause for thought.
“To watch the corn grow, and the blossoms set; to draw hard breath over ploughshare or spade; to read, to think, to love, to hope, to pray — these are the things that make men happy; they have always had the power of doing these… The world’s prosperity or adversity depends upon our knowing and teaching these few things: but upon iron, or glass, or electricity, or steam, in no wise.” — John Ruskin
Ruskin is absolutely right here. And not only do people today focus too tightly on iron, glass, electricity, and steam (and oil, and plastic, and…), but our elected leaders act as though human happiness depends on them. Money, resources, and attention are given to these materials, rather than reading, thought, prayer, and the others. What would the world be like if our society valued education over road-building?…
But our whole economy is built on the corporation, and corporations cannot buy hope, sell thought, hoard love, or streamline the production of prayer. Not because these things are worthless, but because they are free and abundant.