Thursday, August 25, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors."

Israel accomplished its self-inflicted ethnic cleansing with lightning speed and without loss of life. What was supposed to take six weeks in the end took less than three days.

Little blood spilled, but many tears. In an article originally published in French, Elie Wiesel counts the images of Israel's internal agony over the Gaza withdrawal. "Angry men, crying women. Children, led away on foot or in the arms of soldiers who are sobbing themselves."

The sense of betrayal was palpable. The same government that encouraged the settlers to pitch their homes there two generations ago turned around and evicted them. The images of Jewish families shuffling down the road, away from burning homes, with pitiful bundles in their hands, inevitably evoked other images, bearing dates like 1938, 1942.

The news reports described the few holdouts in Gaza rallying in synagogues, which got me thinking about this curious word -- in America so associated with Judaism, but not a Hebrew word at all.

Synagogue was in early Middle English, arriving via Church Latin synagoga from Greek synagoge. This was the word Greek translators of the Old Testament took as a loan-translation of late Hebrew keneseth "assembly."

[Greek words for "Christian house of assembly" were kyriake (oikia) "Lord's (house)," which passed into Germanic and became English church, and the more common ekklesia, from ekklesiastes "speaker in an assembly or church, preacher," source of the common Romance word; and basilike, from (stoa) basilike "royal (portal)," a pagan hold over in reference to the portico of the archon basileus, the official who dispensed justice in Athens.]

The Greek synagoge, too, literally meant "meeting, assembly." It's a compound from syn- "together" and agein "to bring, to lead."

Agein is the Greek form of the very productive Indo-European base *ag- "to drive, to draw, to move." The Greek word has cognates in Latin actus "a doing" (source of act) and agere "to do, to set in motion, to drive, to urge" (source of agile, exact, litigation and many other words). Outside Greek and Latin, relatives include Sanskrit ajati "drives," ajirah "moving, active;" Old Norse aka "to drive;" and Middle Irish ag "battle."

Among the Greek relatives of agein are the nouns agon "assembly, contest in the games," and agogos "leader." From the second comes demagogue, which as ancient Greek demagogos meant merely "leader of the people" but was a term of disparagement ever since it was first used in Athens in the 5th century B.C.E.

From the first comes agony "mental suffering" (which originally referred especially to that of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane), from Greek agonia "a (mental) struggle for victory," originally "a struggle for victory in the games," from agon "assembly for a contest." Agony's sense of "extreme bodily suffering" is not in the root sense of the word, and first emerged in English in Shakespeare's time.

Also from the Greek agein are strategy and pedagogue, the latter from Greek paidagogos "slave who escorted children to school and generally supervised them," later "a teacher." The hostile implications in the English word are at least from the time of Pepys.

Gas prices were among the most-searched terms in the Google "Zeitgeist" last week. Gas as short for gasoline is an American English peculiarity, first recorded 1905. British petrol in the same sense is older, recorded from 1895, but borrowed from French pétrol.

Gasoline itself is no older than 1865, coined as gasolene from the chemical suffix -ine/-ene and the old word gas.

Gas in the sense of "vapor, substance that is neither solid nor liquid" came to English in the 1650s from Dutch. The word was first used by the Flemmish chemist J.B. van Helmont (1577-1644), and what he was really writing was the Greek word khaos "empty space, gaping void, abyss" (the same word that became English chaos), but the sound of Dutch -g- is roughly equivalent to that of Greek -kh-.

Van Helmont probably was influenced in this by Paracelsus, who used khaos in an occult sense of "proper elements of spirits" or "ultra-rarified water," which was van Helmont's definition of gas. The modern scientific sense of the word began 1779, focused on "combustible mix of vapors" (1794, originally coal gas); "anesthetic" (1894, originally nitrous oxide); and "poison gas" (1900). The meaning "intestinal vapors" is attested from 1882.

Greek khaos gets closest to its original meaning in its sense of "abyss, that which is vast and empty." Writers commonly refer to a "gaping" or a "yawning" abyss, and that's the image at the root of the Greek word. Khaos is literally "that which gapes wide open." It's related to Greek khaino "I yawn," and to Old English ginian, the direct ancestor of modern yawn.

The main modern meaning "utter confusion" in English chaos is a 17th century extension of the theological use of Latin chaos for "the void at the beginning of creation" in the Vulgate version of Genesis. The Greek for "disorder" was tarakhe, however the use of chaos here was rooted in Hesiod ("Theogony"), who describes khaos as the primeval emptiness of the Universe, begetter of Erebus and Nyx ("Night"), and in Ovid ("Metamorphoses"), who opposes Khaos to Kosmos "the ordered Universe."

Dove ads was a dominant search engine term this past week, presumably in reference to the "Campaign for Real Beauty," which offers up images of attractive women who don't fit the physical profile of women who typically appear in beauty ads.

I'm writing this with particular care, because without seeking them out, I've been romantically involved with two, and I'm married to one, woman who is built like the typical woman in a beauty ad, and I think she's beautiful, and yes, in fact, that's how she looks.

Not everyone, of course, is happy with the ads.

Interesting, though that the English word dove originally was applied to all birds of the pigeon type, and only latterly has been restricted to the turtle dove. The word is Old English dufe- (found only in compounds), and is perhaps related to the words for "dive," in reference to the bird's flight.

It has been a symbol of gentleness (which probably is why the soap manufacturer chose it) since early Christian times; though the modern the political meaning "person who advocates peace" is first attested 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The unkillable Rolling Stones were back at the top of the search engines, too, no doubt because of the impending release of their new album, "A Bigger Bang," Sept. 5 and the Aug. 21 start of their concert latest tour, their 37,000th. The buzz about it no doubt picked up intensity when it transpired that they've written a new song which either is or is not political and either does or does not criticize President Bush, or America, or maybe Condi Rice. Or maybe not.

At any rate, the proverb "The rollyng stone neuer gatherth mosse" was one of the many collected by John Heywood and published in 1546 in "A dialogue conteinying the nomber in effect of all the proverbes in the Englishe tongue." It's presumably older than that, but how much older no one now can say.

But probably not older than c.1300, which is when roll first began to be used in English as a verb. Its original use was as a noun, meaning "rolled-up piece of parchment or paper," in which sense it comes to England from Old French rolle, which is from Medieval Latin rotulus "a roll of paper," from Latin rotula "small wheel," a diminutive formation from rota "wheel."

The noun stone, meanwhile, is as steady as a rock, right back through Old English stan, a word the Anglo-Saxons used in reference to common rocks, precious gems, concretions in the body, and memorial stones. The word is recognizable across most of the Germanic languages (cf. Old Norse steinn, Danish steen, Old High German and Modern German stein, Gothic stains).

The Proto-Indo-European root here is *stai- "stone," also "to thicken, stiffen," which yielded, among other words, Sanskrit styayate "curdles, becomes hard;" Avestan stay- "heap;" Greek stear "fat, tallow" and stia, stion "pebble;" and Old Church Slavonic stena "wall."

"A Bigger Bang" and the song "Sweet Neo-Con" were co-produced by Don Was and recorded in sessions in Paris and mixed in Los Angeles. No doubt the studio catering was posh.

By sheer coincidence, the same day the Stones were soaking in the Paris bling, Luke Stricklin sat down on a five-gallon water cooler in a bombed-out concrete building at a U.S. National Guard outpost in Baghdad. He, too, sang his song.

His buddies had set up the laptop with the recording software and hooked it up to a cheap microphone. One of them, J.R. Shultz, had helped Stricklin work out the chords to go with his words. As he sang, Stricklin strummed a beat-up guitar an Iraqi boy had found it for him at a Baghdad bazaar. Stricklin paid $25 for the thing, and gave the kid a $25 tip.

The lyrics had come to Strickin over weeks, during his tour of duty. He'd jot down a line or two in a green waterproof Army-issue notebook he was required to carry while on patrols.

When they finished recording, the guardsmen packed up and went back to work. Stricklin saved the computer file and e-mailed it home, with a note, "Mom, listen to this."

Bottom of my boots sure are gettin' worn
There's a lot of holes in this faded uniform
My hands are black with dirt and so is my face
I ain't never been to hell
But it couldn't be any worse than this place.

Mom listened, and broke down in tears. Her son, an Arkansas soldier, just 23, worked in an electric motor shop before he went to war. She had asked him again and again to tell her what it was really like over there. The song was his answer.

He sings about Baghdad. "The neighborhood smells like sewage and the streets are lined with trash." It's deadly dangerous, but Stricklin's thoughts are firmly on two things. The first is how good he and all of us have it in the United States, no matter what we think we have to complain about.

The other is the Iraqi people around him, who can't look forward to getting away from that hell after 12 months are up. One wonders if the boy who fetched the guitar for him isn't in there, too:

It breaks my heart to see these kids out on the streets
Walking barefoot through the trash, diggin' for something to eat.
I give them what I got, just to let them know I care
And I thank God it's not my son that's standing there.

The song needed a name. They called it "American by God's Amazing Grace." Stricklin's mother, Sheila Harrington, forwarded a copy to the Fort Smith radio station. They aired it once. Requests poured in for more. By the time Stricklin came home from Iraq in March, "American by God's Amazing Grace" was on country radio stations across the heartland.

Look at headlines now, and you'll see Bush and Sheehan. The president who doesn't plan ahead and won't look back, and the anti-war mother groomed by Michael Moore's slick handlers and apotheosized in the media's eye to "absolute moral authority."

Really don't care why Bush went in to Iraq
I know what I done there and I'm damn sure proud of that.

Luke Stricklin casts a cold eye on the war. And he knows what he's there to do. He's going to make life a little better for those folks, and then go home with head held up, but with lots to think about. He makes no claim to "moral authority." Which is part of the reason he genuinely has some of it.

There's a professional version of Stricklin's song now, recorded in a fancy studio. Good for him; the young man needs a career and Nashville sure beats the electric motor shop.

But it will be that raw Baghdad version that history will remember, long after "Sweet Neo-Con" is forgotten, and rank among the straightforward, but far from simple, songs found by men at war far from home. Along with "Lili Marlene" and "Mademoiselle from Armentiers," "Tenting Tonight" and "Shenandoah."