Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Day The English Language Began

Linguists must shrink in horror (or lean in with deep fascination) when confronted with the chunky stew that is the English language. I've traveled to France several times, and at every turn I stumbled across words that, when pronounced with a different accent, were familiar everyday English words. Here's when it happened ...

From the Writer's Almanac:

The anniversary of the Norman invasion of 1066. It was this week in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy first arrived on British soil. The French-speaking Normans eventually defeated Old English-speaking Saxons at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 — which had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.

The English word literature comes down from the Old French lettre. In the singular, the word in French refers to a member of the alphabet; when it's plural, it's as broad as it is in our phrase "Arts and Letters," encompassing literature and culture.

The pen with which we write may be mightier than the sword, but it was still a sharp object, at least when it first came into English from the Old French penne, "a feather with a sharpened quill." It was dipped in enque, which surely was spilled sometimes. This Old French word for ink came from a Latin word that described the purple fluid meant for a very specific use: the Roman emperor's official stamp of approval, his John Hancock.

Various genres of English literature derive their names from French roots, some of which ultimately derived from Greek. Poet, for example, we got from the Old French word poete, which entered French from Greek via Latin. In Greek, there's poiein, a verb meaning "to create." And in Greek there is poetes, "maker, poet." In Middle English, "poetry" at first referred to creative literature as a whole.

Tragedy in English is from the Old French tragedie via Latin from Greek tragoidia. The reasoning behind the Greek roots (tragos, meaning "goat" and oide "ode, song") is not entirely clear. On that note, mystery, from Old French mistere, was a word first used in English with the sense of "mystic presence" or "hidden religious" symbolism.

Comedy at first referred in English to a genre of stories in which the ending was a happy one. It also came into Middle English through Old French, via Latin from Greek, where it's a compound of the words "revel" and "singer." Comedian first referred to a person who wrote comic plays, and then — in the late 1800s — developed the sense of a person who stands in front of an audience and tells jokes.

Journal is from Old French jurnal, or "belonging to a day." At first, it was a sort of reference book that contained the times of daily prayers. In the 1600s, it acquired the meaning of "diary" and later became associated with newspaper titles and lent its root to journalism.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Noble Lies

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

- Seneca the Younger

Many of the top thinkers in the freethinker/atheist “movement” believe we have an obligation to drag all people – kicking and screaming, if need be – into our brave new secular world. They propose that we take away people’s primitive but cherished illusions and in return we offer them ... what? Ah yes, of course: The Truth. In exchange for surrendering your belief in the ancient Bedouin sky god, we will reveal to you The Truth: that life is random, that the universe views us with supreme indifference, and when you die you brain is extinguished and your body rots.

And we wonder why so many of them say “No thanks!”

We need to ask ourselves: do we really want to take away the primitive, childlike faith of the common people? Perhaps we should be mindful of Nietzsche’s theory that one can judge the strength of a person’s character by how much truth that person can stand. Anyone who has spent any time rubbing shoulders with the common people can attest to the fact that their tolerance for truth is very small indeed. What can we expect will happen to those people when we bring them the truth about a godless world? How will they react? Dostoevsky said that if there was no God, then anything is permitted. Anything. Think about that for a moment; think about the implications of it. Think about the prospect of millions of newly godless people waking up simultaneously to that single realization: anything is permitted. Think of the things your neighbors and coworkers might be capable of were they not restrained by the fear of an eternity in a lake of fire.

Perhaps Plato was right. Perhaps our best course of action is to just leave the common people to bask in the illusory comfort of their noble lies.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, H.L. Mencken

Nietzschean, elitist, racist, professional crank, and quite possibly America's greatest cultural gadfly (perhaps only Gore Vidal comes close). One has to forgive Mencken a lot if one wants to read him, but he rewards the courageous.

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of the journalist and editor H.L. Mencken born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). He graduated as the valedictorian from his high school at the age of 15, but even though he was burning to write, he did exactly what his father expected: He took a job at the cigar factory. He started out rolling the cigars alongside the other blue-collar men, and he actually enjoyed that manual labor. But when he was promoted to the front office, he was hopelessly bored. He finally mustered up his courage and told his father that he wanted to pursue a career in journalism. His father told him to bring up the subject again in a year.

Mencken had been working at his father's factory for three years when, on New Year's Eve in 1898, his father had a convulsion and collapsed. His mother told Mencken to get a doctor, 11 blocks down the street, and Mencken later said, "I remember well how, as I was trotting to [the doctor's] house on that first night, I kept saying to myself that if my father died I'd be free at last."

His father died two weeks later. The day after his father's funeral, Mencken shaved his face, combed his hair, put on his best suit, and went down to the Baltimore Morning Herald, asking for a job. Mencken came back every single day for the next four weeks. He finally wore the editor down, and he got to write two articles, each fewer than 50 words long.

He went on to become one of the most influential and prolific journalists in America, writing about all the shams and con artists in the world. He attacked chiropractors and the Ku Klux Klan, politicians and other journalists. Most of all, he attacked Puritan morality. He called Puritanism, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

At the height of his career, he edited and wrote for The American Mercury magazine and the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune, and published two or three books every year. His masterpiece was one of the few books he wrote about something he loved, a book called The American Language (1919), a history and collection of American vernacular speech. It included a translation of the Declaration of Independence into American English that began, "When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody."

When asked what he would like for an epitaph, Mencken wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On this date in 1981

He was an insufferable, narcissistic pig in every respect, but Picasso understood what art is supposed to do, the role it should serve in a society. If Picasso had lived in Plato's mythical Republic, he would have understood why the artists would be considered dangerous and would be driven from the city -- and Picasso would have fought it to the death.

From The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1981 that Pablo Picasso's famous painting "Guernica" was returned to Spain to hang in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The painting depicts the suffering in the city of Guernica, the capitol of Basque Spain, after a German bombardment in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso exhibited the painting in Paris, but then sent it to New York and refused to allow it to be shown in Spain until the rule of General Franco ended. Pablo Picasso, who said: "Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It's an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Against All Fanaticisms

“The first duty of the philosopher in our world today is to fight against fanaticism under whatever guise it may appear.”

-Gabriel Marcel

Listen to what Marcel is saying here. He is saying that we don’t get to pick which fanaticisms we oppose and which we embrace. He is saying that fanaticism as such must be opposed. Given that every “ism” is a fanaticism” more or less cleverly concealed, are we then to oppose all of them? Must we always be “reasonable”? Or do some things demand a level of commitment from us that cannot be described as anything less than “fanatical”? If so, then on what ground do we base our triage? How to decide which “isms” to oppose and which to champion? Everyone can agree that the fanaticisms of communism and fascism should be opposed wherever they present themselves. Many would say that capitalism (especially of the uncontrolled, freebooter variety) should equally be opposed. But what about those “isms” of which we approve? What about internationalism? Humanism? And what about that most problematical of fanaticisms, idealism? If these fanaticisms are not also to be opposed, then we need to evolve a “truth test” for good vs. bad fanaticisms, a truth test that by the nature of its structure and content would command assent from any rational moral agent. This truth test would require a lot more rigor than “Well, this fanaticism is nice to people and this fanaticism is mean.” That’s the truth test of the schoolyard, and is useless for our purposes.

This subject demands an expanded essay in itself. More: it demands a book. And who knows, maybe I might just be the one to write it. But not now, and not for awhile.