The roots of a word contain a rich bank of associations and metaphors that reveal the marvelous ways in which disparate ideas link and interrelate.
Some 2500 years ago, ancient Indian grammarians contemplated how it is that sound becomes meaning. Panini, who is thought to be the first in human history to scientifically study speech and language, wrote that when the mind has the intention to speak, it “gives impetus to the fire within the body and the latter drives the breath out.” In this way, words are born.
Following in his footsteps, the great grammarian Patanjali, whose philosophical breadth and depth has been equated with Aristotle’s, wrote of shabda (Sanskrit for sound), the ether from which words are formed. Other grammarians would go on to say that shabda was a quality of the sky, of space itself, invisible but not eternal, capable of being produced and destroyed. Yet others wrote that speech derived from a primordial shout.
Bombarded as we are with words upon words—written, spoken, chattered and electronically generated—effortlessly spent as if we are dropping small change on the ground, we easily become blind to the profound magic of speech. It becomes simple to treat words as so much blather to be expended in the run of a day. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
It’s occasionally worthwhile to take the measure of words, to listen to them and roll them about in our mind, to hear how we shape the air with our mouths and lips and nose and cut it with our teeth and produce something that gives birth to an idea in the world or unleashes storms of response.
When I studied grammar in school, it trained me to think of language as a pre-constructed entity with rules to be followed, rather than as a dynamic act that both follows rules and makes the rules as it goes along. Words are an ongoing consensual creation that spark and snap in each new usage. They have shape, but they move and evolve. Their meanings cannot be pinned down in a dictionary. A good dictionary can paint a picture or point in a particular direction, but definitions are themselves made of words, so as we seek to find the definition of a word, we follow a path of synonyms into infinite regress.
Having gained some appreciation for the wonder of words and their liveliness, I took up the pastime of searching for the roots of a word and contemplating the ideas and images that gave it birth. In English, the roots of many words can be found in Latin and Greek and in the language that most likely predated them, called Indo-European, the mother language also of Sanskrit, German, Russian and a variety of other languages. It is a mistake to look to etymology for the current meaning of a word, but it can show you a rich bank of associations and metaphors that reveal the marvelous ways in which disparate ideas link and interrelate.
I used to sit for hours in the dictionary area of the library and pore over the volumes of Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanic Etymological Dictionary, discovering, for example, that the Indo-European root sed, to sit, through various transformations over the millennia gave us sit, set, ersatz, settle, saddle, soot, seat, seance, sedentary, sediment, session, siege, assess, dissident, obsess, possess, preside, reside, subsidy, supersede, subside, sedate, soil, and chair.
This potpourri of simple, physical terms like saddle and chair and more complex notions like session (a sitting together) or preside (to sit in front of) or possess (to have the power to sit with, therefore to own) all derive from the basic notion of sitting. Complexities boil down to simplicities.
Over the years, a few words have become favorites of mine, where the etymology can reveal something about the word that says even more than the word itself. In celebration of the subtle power that lies in words, I would like to share a few of these, all of them words that are virtues.
The first is “subtlety,” which comes from the Latin subtilis, which originally meant “the thread passing below the warp, the finest thread.” Subtlety then is the kind of thread that is very hard to see but which nonetheless is vital to the integrity of the whole fabric. It’s a beautiful image that speaks to why it’s so important to pay attention to subtleties.
“Abide” is from Old English abidana. Bidan meant to remain, and the “a” intensified it, so it meant “intensively to remain,” “to remain completely, utterly.” To abide is to stay when there is the temptation to go, not to move when one is drawn to move. There is great power in abiding. As is said so powerfully of the title character at the end of the movie The Big Lebowski, “The dude abides.”
“Ardor,” an older synonym for “zeal” or “passion,” comes simply from the Latin ardere, to burn. To pursue something with ardor is truly to be filled with fire or to be on fire; the metaphor behind the word is as powerful as the word itself. To have ardor is to burn, to be hot, and others can feel it in your presence.
“Religion,” a word that carries such baggage today, most likely came from the Latin verb religare, to tie fast. The point of religion in human life may be some kind of binding, to be bound tightly to something that provides strength and union, be that God or gods or the practice of meditation. Perhaps, the binding is the key, not a belief system.
Such explorations in words are simply a means to enrich the appreciation of the breadth and depth of even a single word, so that we might value each of them all the more, knowing their lineage and the richness of their personality. For all of their shortcomings and their vagueness, words are after all the main vehicle we have to reach out from the vastness of our own mind.