Barry’s Blog # 153: Creative Etymology for a World Gone Mad, Part One of Three


Call the world… “The vale of Soul-making.” – John Keats

To be born is to be weighed down with strange gifts of the soul, with enigmas and an inextinguishable sense of exile.  – Ben Okri

Remember, and failing that, invent. – Monique Wittig

As a mythologist I am neither objective nor dispassionate, but interested (to “be between”) in complication (“folding together”). Although I do regret not taking Latin in high school or Greek in college, I proudly admit to being an amateur (from amare, “to love”). I love words and I love stories. I’m neither a scientist nor a theologian but a reckless dilettante (“to take delight”). I’m interested in what Utah Phillips called the Long Memory:

 … the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.

The Long Memory is about who we were before our imagination became so diminished; how our ancestors communicated deeper truths than we know how to grasp now; deeper because they had language that could acknowledge the ambiguities and nuances (sometimes painful and sometimes joyful) of life. It’s complicated. That’s why we turn to mythological thinking and speaking — poetry — in our quest to bring soul back into the world, to re-animate the world.

Plato wrote that in the afterworld each soul picks a new incarnation best suited to its needs. Then it drinks from a spring called Lethe (“forgetfulness”) and remembers nothing of what it has learned! Similarly, Jewish tradition tells that when a soul is ready to be born, the angel Lailah places a finger over the soul’s lips, gesturing “Shhhh!”, thereby forming the cleft found below its nose, and the newborn soul remembers nothing. In West Africa it is said that each soul forms an agreement with a pair of divine twins regarding their purpose in the next life. Heading toward birth, however, they embrace the tree of forgetfulness and again remember nothing. 

Perhaps it is human nature to literalize our mythic images. There was an actual tree of forgetfulness near the “Gateway of No Return” at the old slave trading fort of Ouidah in Benin, West Africa. Before newly enslaved people were loaded onto the ships, they were made to walk around this tree.  Men had to go round it nine times, women and children seven. This experience, they were told, would make them forget everything – their names, their family, and the life they had once had. 

They did not forget their language, however, and many African words found their way into American English. Michael Ventura, in his remarkable essay Hear That Long Snake Moan  writes:

…some of our most common terms – terms often associated with the music – are from African languages…funky is from the Ki-Kongo lufuki, meaning “positive sweat.” Mojo… is Ki-Kongo for “soul.” Our boogie comes from the Ki-Kongon mbugi, meaning…“devilishly good.” Juke, as in our jukebox…is the Mande-kan word for “bad.” Jazz and jism likely derive from the Ki-Kongo dinza, which means “to ejaculate.” And the use of the concept “cool” among the Yoruba people of Africa is precisely the same as its use as popularized by jazz musicians…Sidney Bechet, the great New Orleans reed player…called his music “the remembering song.”

Such myths imply that life is an effort to fulfill forgotten obligations – a series of surprises, disappointments and initiations that shock the soul into remembering. The soul returns to the truth it once already knew but forgot. The return is a process of un-forgetting (a-lethe-ia) that requires re-crossing that same river of forgetfulness. Truth is remembering. In a Mayan dialect, “remember” means “to feed.” From this perspective our inevitable family wounds don’t necessarily limit us. What does limit us is our capacity to imagine. The Spanish word for “remember” is recordar, which translates as “pass through the heart (corazone), comes from the Latin for “heart” (cor) and relates to “courage.” It takes courage to remember who we really are, and to speak the truth with beautiful language.

This is why myth and poetry utilize metaphor (“a carrying over”), which allows us to leap the chasm between thoughts and transmit multiple levels of meaning. Unlike fantasy, which is self-centered, imagination implies dialogue (“to speak across”). Indeed, some languages including Russian and certain Mayan dialects actually lack the verb “to be.” Speakers in these places must communicate indirectly, tolerate ambiguity and endure the tension between opposites rather than settling for “either-or” resolution. Consequently, their ordinary speech is full of beautiful imagery.

And they acknowledge that no one being is isolated but always defined by relationship. Consider that in Gaelic you cannot say, “I am angry at you.” You have to say it this way: “There is anger between us.”

When we reduce memory to literalized data storage, we forget how to make images and weave new meaning. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hassidism, said, “In remembrance is the beginning of redemption.” Truth – aletheia – is memory; and myth is truth precisely because it refuses to reduce the world to one single perspective.

Indeed, the word mnemonic, something that aids memory, comes from Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, the mother of the nine Muses, who serve her by rendering her essence – history – into art.

The work of re-imagining the world (or re-membering it) involves the use of etymology and imaginative approaches to language in order to approach insight. For example, “forget” is the opposite of “remember.” But the opposite of “re-member” (putting something back together) could also be “dis-member,” which is exactly what Dionysus does to Pentheus in the Greek tragedy The Bacchae. A soul – or a world – that willfully refuses to remember who we are at the universal core of our identity invites an outside force – the stranger – to dismember it.

Here is the fundamental message of The Bacchae. At a crucial point in the play, Pentheus orders his men to “provoke” (from vocare, to call) Dionysus. This is marvelously appropriate, because (as in the Gaelic) the two characters are in relationship. At some level Pentheus can choose. He can invoke or evoke his own Dionysian nature, or he can innocently project it outwards, provoking its expression somewhere else, with tragic consequences. My book  applies this thinking to American history, and at no time since the book was published over ten years ago has this basic insight been more relevant. How ironic that our media commonly uses an acronym (Greek: “name at the top”) for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” that becomes ISIS, an ancient goddess who shared much of her symbolism with Semele, the mother of Dionysus.

Dionysus was the enigmatic, demonized stranger who brought King Pentheus down. “Stranger” (or “foreigner”) comes from the Greek xenos. However, the Greeks interpreted this word xenos differently based upon the context. It could indicate simply that someone was not a member of the community. But it also could mean “guest” in the elaborate ritual of hospitality, xenia (“guest-friendship). The Greeks deliberately used this ambiguity because strangers could be gods or goddesses in disguise (as in the myth of Baucus and Philemon). So they emphasized kindness and respect toward strangers, and hospitality was critically important to Zeus himself. Even today, tourists can book their stay at Hotel Philos-Xenia (“love of the guest/stranger”). Sadly, the English language has diminished this notion, using only the “stranger” side of the ambiguity in the fever of xenophobia that periodically sweeps us up in immigrant-hating.

So looking to the original meanings of words can help us to think metaphorically. Some mysteries, however, continue to evade our understanding. Why does “cleave” have two opposite meanings (“adhere to” and “cut”)? Why does “engage” have both a marital implication as well as a martial one? Why do we have to pay attention?

And how about entertain (to hold together)? What does “together” refer to – subject or object? Two or more subjects can hold something in common. Or one subject could hold two or more objects. Finally, a community, several subjects, could hold mutually exclusive concepts – the tension of the opposites – in a ritual container such as tragic drama, and suffer together. Perhaps the original meaning of entertainment was ritual renewal of the community though shared suffering, just as compete (“strive after something together”) may well have meant “to petition the gods together” in its original context.

We also need to see past uninspired translation. First-century Jews spoke in the Aramaic language. The word used by Jesus and translated into Greek as diabolos and into English as “evil” actually means “unripe.” What if we used “unripe” instead of “evil?” Unripe persons are simply immature, or in ritual terms, uninitiated. The indigenous world understood that communities are responsible for helping such people “ripen,” rather than punishing or eradicating them, because each person’s gift was unique and indispensable. This is critical: if we can’t imagine a sym-bolic (“throwing together”) world, then we are left with a dia-bolic world.

Even diabolic (related to “dance”), originally implied communication between adversaries. Unimaginative language, says James Hillman, “displaces the metaphorical drive from its appropriate display in poetry and rhetoric…into direct action. The body becomes the place for the soul’s metaphors.” In other words, if we can’t make images in art, music or beautiful speech, we get sick.

I’ve begun to compile a list of English words with surprising roots and connections, and I welcome further additions. Part Two of this essay will list them.

Part of the work of bringing soul back into the world is learning to address this world – and each other – with beautiful, complex, multi-faceted, nuanced (slight difference, shade of color, mist, vapor, cloud) language (tongue; Spanish: lengua), and to know how our words have evolved over many centuries from their original Greek, Latin, Germanic or other meanings. English in particular is a mish-mash (mash: to mix with hot water, reduce to a soft pulpy consistency) of influences, because English history itself is the story of regular invasion by different language groups. It is indeed ironic that the English themselves invaded so many other countries that the language acquired countless words from other places. But that is another story.

So here is a very incomplete list of English words with surprising (related to comprehend) roots, original meanings and connections to other common words.

I invite you to bookmark an etymology dictionary on your computer. Get into the habit of wondering, “Hey, what does that word mean? Is it related to this other one? Why?” And please send me any interesting (to be between) additions.

Site of the Tree of Forgetfulness

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3 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 153: Creative Etymology for a World Gone Mad, Part One of Three

  1. Dale says:

    Brilliant (radiant gem), Barry! Also, Pentheus “provoking” / “calling” Dionysius sounds like “calling” the hand of other in a poker game — “Read ’em, and weep”

  2. Hari Meyers says:

    Quite wonderful. Even better than your usual, which is very good indeed! Barr, you are amazing — your entusiasm leads to so many insights. Keep on going, Barry. Keep on going!

  3. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 300: Military Madness – The Unacknowledged Metaphors in Our Daily Speech, Part One of Four | madnessatthegates

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