The Space of Words

The Christian Bible begins with ‘In the beginning was the word’. This is one of the most famous lines in English, and yet nobody today really knows what it means. Part of it is that it has been translated several times, never a good way to obtain clarity of meaning, but more importantly, we live in a world where we have far more words, so each one means less than in the past. Elsewhere in the Bible, the Greek word that we get the word ‘word’ from, ie ‘logos’ is also the words coming from the burning bush. It is also the opposite of muthos, ie mythology, so can be interpreted as something like, clear thinking, or scientific thought. So it has a huge, open meaning that is far beyond our fenced in minds capacity to understand. It is, like the concept of God, just too big for us of little words to understand.

In the beginning each word had space around it, it stood clear, so people knew what it was, and if not they could make a reasonable guess as to its meaning. They may have known less, but what they knew, they knew well. Their words had considerable more depth than our vocabulary, which is more like a thick forest, a place where meaning struggles to be seen, where we quite literally cannot see the wood for the trees. And there are more being coined, or changed every day. One falls by the wayside and several spring up in its stead, some of which will vanish before maturity, a few will enter the hallowed pages of the dictionaries.

The fruit eaten by Adam and Eve is said to have been an apple, but if the Garden of Eden was in the Middle East, as most people seem to assume, did they  have apples there? The term apple seems to be another one of these big open words that cover lots of meanings. It seems to mean a round, staple type of  food. In Italy, the tomato, when introduced from the Americas was called and still is – pomme d’oro, or golden apple, as the original forms of the vegetable were golden. In the Netherlands, their staple food for peasants – also an introduction from the Americas – was named the Aardappel, or earth apple, the potato.

Corn is another word that can mean different things in different places – it can be sweet corn, or maize or even rye; it is the standard grain of the region. It is also where a term for making gunpowder comes from – when they formed it into pellets, the process was called ‘corning’.

Words change over time. The Saxon word ‘crug’ means hill, but churches were built on hills, so it seems that when non Saxon speakers pointed to a hill and asked what it was, it became the same. This is probably the origin of place names which have the same name twice, such as ‘churchhill‘. And crug or crock is also a shape of a building. ‘Avon’ is Celtic for water, or river, so River Avon is another common tautology used by non native speakers. There are places in Wales where the same term is used 3 times in 3 different languages to name the same thing. The same pattern can be seen when place names enter into other languages. In Japan, there is a mountain called Fujiama, which means Mount Fuji, but in English this is often named as Mount Fujiama.

4 thoughts on “The Space of Words

  1. I took a class in Sanskrit a few years ago and one of the most interesting words was Om. If you say it properly, it encompasses all of the vowel sounds that humans are capable of making and is considered with reverence for that reason. Sanskrit (like Latin) is a dead language, but the vibration of actually making the sounds is significant, in other words it almost doesn’t matter if you know what you are saying, the sound is all…

    I’ve always found etymology a fascinating subject.
    There is also the French pommes de terre (apples of the earth, or potatoes). Entomology gives order and history to our otherwise inexplicable syntax.

    I have heard that the forbidden fruit was actually a pomegranate…but apples did originate in the region of present day Kazakhstan and have been so influential in so many ways…who knows?
    As always, I really enjoy and look forward to your posts!

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    • French is one language I never took to. Growing up with their nuclear testing in the Pacific and then the Rainbow Warrior incident, they ddin’t make a lot of friends from that. But hey, that’s history, and I’d hate to be held responsible for anything our politicians did.

      Hmm Sanskrit. Another one I know nothing about. Sounds interesting.

      Thanks for the comments as always.

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  2. I don’t quite follow how more words equates with less meaning per word, unless the hoard of human knowledge is a fixed quantity, and surely the recent era has seen knowledge and understanding (not just data) increase.

    I’m a little less pessimistic than you seem to be, counting words as my trusty tools in funnelling meaning through that reducing valve that stands between us all, where thoughts must go into words, thence to heard and understood, and finally reconstituted. I was once inspired to write a whole piece proclaiming that my words are words; not the fashionable notes on the guitar fretboard that players so often say are better. I’m still working on paint – but often find poems in pictures and vice versa.

    Some time in the last year (or so), the hoard (host?) of English passed One Million, and I find that (as my US friends say) “real neat”. I love to live in The English Speaking Club, even though we English seem to prefer to live under the stairs, in the comfortable damp of the scullery.

    I think words make their own rightful space if championed well, and equally can be diminished by abuse – as with media or political cliché. The loss of the complex ancestral grammar present in Latin should not be taken as a disadvantage. Latin may find the exact centre of a meaning through a precision resembling x,y,z co-ordinates, but English gives us a big bag of words – many of them short – enough of which can be wrapped around (rapped around?) a small space.

    The simple assembly of object – verb – subject may not have an aesthetic appeal to all – perhaps it’s a just a bit too plebeian, compared with the educated process of formal conjugation – but to engineers and those who wrote the US Constitution, the bit-piece simplicity of English has been both freedom and discipline. In a small set of understood conventions (and as few long words as practical), truth about intentions is harder to hide and therefore must be better spelled out. It’s almost like technical drawing, and the test is simple; presented with the picture, did you imagine the object correctly?

    Seamus Heaney spoke of his enthusiasm for the Old English handling of “telling what happened” – and I reckon praise from an Irishman for anything English must weigh a lot. The character of any language must be its strength as well as its weakness, and I am sure the future will judge we English speakers on our treatment of the rest of the world, and point to the straight ahead quality of our tongue. But I hope it notes, for example, alongside the great spiritual project of Asian history, that it was a Scottish doctor who first worked scientifically (and with success) to control malaria in that part of the world. The dead cannot think.

    “Something’s gained and something’s lost by living every day” , and there never was any option of standing still. The pace always seems to quicken, and English is on the pace, on the pulse, for now, and so am I.

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