or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Reader Writes

Commenting on my post of May 7th, TonyPius says:

"Your opening paragraph reminded me of the famous, and probably apocryphal, review of Sir Christoper Wren's rebuilt St. Paul's Cathedral. The monarch reigning at the time is said to have called it "awful, artificial, and amusing" -- a rave review, because it meant "awe-inspiring, expressive of artifice, and pleasant to look at." "

I had heard that story, but I didn't know it was apocryphal, though that's plausible: perhaps someone was trying to make a point about the evolution of English.

Let's look at "evolution". It has only one common meaning nowadays: the gradual process of change. But I once found an earlier meaning, one which has entirely died, in a synopsis of the Offenbach's opera "The Tales of Hoffman", which described the dancing, singing wind-up doll Olympia's "evolutions around the floor". Evolutions? How could that be? As it turns out, "evolution" used to mean, in reference to dancing or gymnastics, "a movement". And this makes sense when the root of the word is uncovered: it's from the Latin "to unroll or unfold". It is a pair of very short metaphorical steps from a literal unrolling to an athletic opening-out movement to any such movement in athletic endeavours.

Perhaps my favourite batch of changed words is that cluster that means "odd". "Outlandish", if you look closely at it, literally means "from another land", and the original meaning was simply "foreign" or "not native"; from there, given the universal human tendency to look askance at unfamiliar things, it was not much of a leap to have the word mean "bizarre". "Bizarre" itself is an oddity: it evidently comes from a Basque word meaning "beard", through Spanish, where "bizarro" means "brave" or "gallant", and then into English from French. And I have absolutely no idea how "beard" became "gallant" became "weird".

"Weird" is a fascinating study in how words become different things in different languages. Its root is an Anglo-Saxon verb, "weorthan", which simply means "to become". The verb survives in German as "werden", with the same meaning (leading to much confusion among new students of German: "bekommen" means not "to become" but "to get"). Eventually it evolved into "wyrd", which meant "fate". This transformation occurred because the sense of the noun, from its root verb, came to mean "something that has become", and the word became infused with a mystical sense of "something that happened, and therefore had to happen": in other words, fate. The Fates* themselves, three women who controlled the destiny of all people, were known in various guises as the Weirds or the Weird Sisters (also the name given to the three witches in "Macbeth"); over time, it isn't hard to see how "weird" changed course from "fateful" or "controlling fate" to "strange".

The study of how words change over time could be a life's work, couldn't it?

*In case you were wondering, their names in Greek are Clotho (CLO-tho, both long vowels), Lachesis (LACK-uh-sis), and Atropos (AT-ruh-pus). Clotho spins the thread of life for every person: her name means "spinner". Lachesis measures it out; her name means "to get by chance". Atropos, with her shears, cuts the thread: her name means "inexorable", the fate of everyone. The name Atropos may be somewhat familiar as the root of "atropine", a poison.


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