July 3rd, 2010 § § permalink
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.
April 23rd, 2008 § § permalink
A funny word we use only rarely in life, and only in specific instances, tuck turns out to be a rich and robust word – it’s a near cognate of its original IE root – with an equally rich history.
The IE root is deuk, “to lead.” Besides tuck we get a number of words from this root that come to us both from Germanic and Latin.
English tuck and Indo-European deuk are very similar, except for a couple sound replacements. The switch from d to t is a classic switch in a word traveling from IE and Latin into Germanic. Another noted example is the word god: in Latin god is deus, in early Germanic/Scandinavian it’s tiu, as in Tuesday, God’s Day. Pretty cool, right? (It’s also similar to the Greek Zeus.)
What’s interesting about the tuck/deuk similarity is that the word’s travels through language took it further and further away from the root sound, only to come back again. (Which is not to say this similarity has any meaning. But from a poet’s perspective the similarity in sound is worth noting.) Tuck is actually a skewed version of the word tug, meaning “to lead, to pull, to pull together, to draw (in).” Tug - say it out loud and you’ll hear how a g sound can easily become a ck – comes from Old English teon, which comes from Germanic teuhan, from which we also get the funny, savage word wanton. We get a number of other similar words from Germanic variations on deuk: tow, taut, and tie, all words that involve pulling in some way.
Deuk feeds more directly into Latin as ducere, “to lead,” and from that Latin root we get words like duke (a leader), duct (and similar words like aqueduct, viaduct, conduct), abduct, produce, reduce, seduce, and educate, “to lead out or bring up.” You can see the d/t shift even more clearly.
What I like most about the word tuck is its relationship with tug. Even though both are the same word, they have come to mean different things. The “to lead” part of the definition has disappeared over the centuries and both words are verbs that essentially mean “to pull,” which is sort of a more violent kind of leadership. Tuck however is a much softer word than tug, which still has some violence attached to it, a certain forcefulness that tuck lacks. Today tuck is used almost exclusively in reference to garments and cloth. Tuck means to pull or gather together folds in a piece of fabric. You also tuck things in and pull them tight, like a shirt into pants, and you tuck your child into bed, pulling covers over and tightening them. Now we have the nip/tuck, pulling and tightening skin. And in Britain “to tuck in/away” is “to eat.” Who knows where that came from.
Also we have the weird word tucker, or tuckered (out). The word first crops up in 1830s New England. This slang term gets right at the heart of the modern meaning of tuck, which is the idea of creating snugness and comfort. (Snug, coincidentally, comes from the same root that spawned a whole host of words about writing, ker (III). Another post.) “To tucker” is “to tire, to weary,” but the word has a sweetness to it that weary does not. The origin of tucker is unclear as far as I can tell, but there are a couple possibilities that relate to tuck’s bedtime meaning: when you’re tired, you get tucked in, so you are tuckered; or, if you take tuck to mean stretch (like pull) it becomes a slangy term for another sleepy action, the stretch. Or it may simply be the product of misuse, like so many of our most unusual words.
I find the deuk/tuck similarity so beautiful because the words are so very different. Deuk is this grand old word meaning simply and profoundly “to lead,” and today we have tuck, a meek little word with a singular task, to describe the act of pulling and gathering clothes. Something to think about when you’re dressing in the morning and deciding what to do with those shirttails.
April 17th, 2008 § § permalink
Watching season 2 of The Wire, which takes place largely at the Port of Baltimore, got me interested in the word stevedore. This is a fancy word for longshoreman, which itself is a fancy word for “guy who loads and unloads ship cargo.” Baltimore stevedores (that’s a fun thing to say) and their corrupt union practices are central to the show, and I wondered where such a unique word came from. We get the word from Spanish cognate estivador, which is the noun version of the verb estivar which means “to stow cargo.”
Take the word back far enough and we arrive at our IE root, steibh or steip. This root word means press or stick together – like packing cargo, individual parts or products put together for storage on a vessel. The word also carries a connotation of repetition and routine. The stevedores move containers from the ship and stack them in precise rows and columns on land. (Unless they’re working some side jobs for the Greeks and then things get a bit messy!)
In Latin the root becomes stip-, from which we get stipes, a tree trunk (how steibh came to mean this is mysterious), and stipare, compress. From Latin we get stiff, stipple (to paint a surface with tiny dots or marks over and over again (think Georges Seurat)), stipend (a regular fixed pay), stipulate, constipation (a whole different kind of stuck together), and, lastly, through Spanish, stevedore.
April 4th, 2008 § § permalink
I learned a quite interesting fact last night, and that is that apples originally come from Kazakhstan. I thought about that and ended up with a nice dream about picking apples on a mountain slope in Kazakhstan. And I thought more about the word “apple.” Apple. And I decided, “apple” is one of my all-time favorite words. (My favorite word, coincidentally, is another fruit: “plum.” But that’s another entry altogether.) I like the plural “apples” even better. It’s such a sweet little word, the way it almost coaxes your tongue into a lisp like that at the end. I think I must like the “-pl” sound quite a bit, because it’s also at the heart of my other favorite word “plum.”
So I glanced at my Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (what? You don’t have a copy?) to see where “apple” came from. I found that the IE root of apple is “abel,” and it’s the first word in the dictionary! I love an entry like this, where you find a word that has hardly changed in thousands of years. “Abel” to “apple” is not much of a journey, which is usually the sign of a very important word; sure enough, “abel” doesn’t just mean apple, it means simply “the fruit of a tree.” So originally, our ancestors called all tree fruit “apples.” Isn’t that great? I also like this entry because usually you find a single root that has come to mean a number of different things. In this case, a word that used to mean many things now means just one thing. The only other word related to it is, naturally, “dapple,” which means mottled or blemished, like the skin of an apple (a word used wonderfully by Hopkins in his poem “Pied Beauty”).
I’m still working on what all of this means for Kazakhstan, I have to explore some more and find out what peoples used to live there. I do know it was home to many IE tribes, so I imagine (or like to imagine) that at some point on the Kazakh mountain slopes a transformation took place that has propagated all the way into modern English.
Joseph Shipley concludes the “abel” entry with a great poem excerpt by Leigh Hunt:
Stolen sweets are always sweeter;
Stolen kisses much completer;
Stolen looks are nice in chapels;
Stolen, stolen be your apples.
A bit more on “Indo-European Root of the Day.” I’ve discovered, fairly recently (since I left school) that I really love to find out where words come from and how they morphed over time to what they are today. A good chunk of the world’s languages – English, Germanic, Romance languages, Indian, Iranian, Turkish, Slavic – got their start from a single group of people, the Indo-Europeans or Proto-Indo-Europeans. Over the years philologists and historical linguists have put together a root language – a basic idea of the words/sounds the IE tribes used so many thousands of years ago. Along with that are theories about how the languages got from there to here. Where they split, why they split, where one word ends and another begins. This is why a word like “apple” is so special. It’s thousands of years old, and it’s virtually unchanged over that time. Remarkable.
Anyway, I find this stuff fascinating. I’m always looking up words in my Shipley book to see where they come from. So I thought it would be fun to post some of these findings here and maybe get some other people interested in this sort of research. I think it changes the way we look at the world; it makes me feel more connected. So I’ll be posting these little tidbits every once in awhile.