Indo-European Root of the Day: Wild
I’ve been seeing and hearing the word wild a lot lately. Lately in the news we’ve heard the story of Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old adventurer who attempted to sail solo around the world only to be caught in a storm in the south Indian Ocean and have her chances dashed. Her boat? Wild Eyes. The other day I watched Where the Wild Things Are, which I enjoyed immensely but not in the way I expected to. A while back I had my post on Ted Hughes’ “Wodwo,” wodwo being the wild-man. In music, this summer has brought the excellent album The Wild Hunt by The Tallest Man on Earth, which is itself a reference to an ancient pan-European myth, that of a group of ghost-soldiers on a hunt across the skies and earth. “The Wild Hunt” is also a recently finished story in the Hellboy comic, in which Hellboy is the object of the hunt.
In many retellings of the Wild Hunt myth, the charge is led by Norse/Germanic god Woden, essentially the Zeus of Northern European paganism, and whose name includes the rood wod meaning “violence” or “fury.” It may be just coincidence that the wodwo, or wild-man, and Woden, God of Fury, share the heteronym wod at their root, but then again it may be less then coincidental that ancient words for “wild” and “violence” have similar sounds and origins. By the way, we celebrate this ancient god every midweek, unwittingly, as we wake up, stretch our arms, and greet Woden’s day – Wednesday.
Anyway, with this collection of wild thoughts lurking around in my brain, I thought I’d take out my old Shipley book, The Origins of English Words, and have a look at where wild came from. The Indo-European root of wild is uelt, which means, perhaps a bit obviously, “open field.” OK, makes sense. Our wodwo is the man of the field. In Germanic the word is weald, which often is brought over to English as part of an ancient place-name, or by a fantasy writer looking for a bit of authenticity. To wilder is to lose one’s way, to become lost in the wild; to bewilder is to cause someone to do this. The noun wilder means a wild animal (with der coming from the root deor (deer) or dheu, meaning animal). Thus a wilderness is a place where wild animals live: wild + der + ness, with –ness coming from the same root as gather or together. Shipley also points out that the representative assembly of the Isle of Man in Great Britain is the Tygwald, the assembly of the field.
The word wild has come to have many subtle meanings, which we interpret variously as freedom, spontaneity, violence, revelry, fear, and an untamed nature which we sometimes cherish, sometimes revile. They all point back to this original root word, a simple expression of openness. At certain points in our lives we desire the wild life, salivate for it; we freak out and make for the woods (another word with wild at its root) to commune with our past. At other points we see wildness as something to be shunned, the opposite of civilization which we use to define civilization, as if we have completely forgotten where we came from.