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


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 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 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.

Read more

Sun, Summer, Summit

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


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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.


  • 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 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.

Read more