or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

(B)Ring In The New

Welcome to 2008.

Yesterday I wrote something that, instead of simply erasing, I want to clarify a little before someone else does. I wrote that

Greek isn't one of the most important influences on English (French, German, and Latin have had much more sway)

by which I meant only that those three parenthesized languages could be said to have dominated the development of English. French contributed massively to the vocabulary of English following the Norman invasion; German contributed relatively few words, but gave English its structure and grammar; and without Latin, there wouldn't be any English at all, because English is larded through with Latin ideas, words, and affixes. But Greek affected Latin in almost the same way: back in the day, all educated Romans spoke Greek and naturally borrowed their ideas and words, and in this way many Greek words entered Latin, became Latinized, and eventually made their way into English. Then in the 1500s, educated English people, who already would have studied Latin, began taking up Greek as well (Ben Jonson noted in 1616 that Shakespeare had "small Latin and less Greek", so we know that by then both languages were considered indispensable to an educated mind), and so a fair number of Greek words entered English directly (or were coined based on Greek principles): many of these are scientific words for which there was no exact match in English, such as "aphasia" and "mnemonic", but others were or have become commonplace words, among them "alphabet" (1567), "choreography" (1789), "phobia" (1786), and "dinosaur" (1841).

When I wrote yesterday that

I'm going to talk about my favourite [Greek import] tomorrow, something to carry us into the new year

I was alluding to the word "metaphor", which is something both literal and metaphorical--how fittingly meta! (A metaphor--you know this, but in case you don't--is a figure of speech that directly relates one thing to another. A simile is a metaphor using the word "like" or "as". "You are like a pink rose, Cousin Cecily", which Algernon says to his young cousin in Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest", is a simile, while a line spoken by Miss Prism only a few minutes before is a metaphor: "Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.")

See that? The top line on that moving van reads "Metaphores", which is the Greek word for "movers". "Metaphor" comes from "meta-", meaning "over" or "across", and "pherein", "to carry" or "to bear". "Metaphora" means "a transfer", and this is the sense that "metaphor" has in English; the transfer of meaning from one word to another.


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