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The History of -Ess

August 16, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.


-ess (or -esse): from ME -esse < OF < LL -issa < Greek
-Merriam-Webster Online



English borrows words from many languages. One way to identify the origin of a word is to look at the word parts. Today’s blog will outline some details about the suffix -ess (or -esse). When investigating a single morpheme, such as -ess, the dictionary is a good place to start. In this case, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists -ess as a noun suffix which means “female.” In other words, -ess does not mean female by itself, but that when attaching it to a specific noun, that noun becomes gendered. So, instead of steward, we have stewardess, or a female flight attendant, for example. Or instead of host, we have hostess.

The next thing to notice from the dictionary entry is the suffix’s etymology. One of my favorite parts of a dictionary is the line that reads like a math equation. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the -ess suffix comes from Middle English (ME) -esse, which comes from Old French (OF), which comes from Late Latin (LL), and originates in Greek. However, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition offers a slight adjustment. The following note changes Old French to “Anglo-French” in this entry. The note explains their reasoning:

“Incorporating material from major scholarly reference works completed in recent years, the etymologies of late Old and Middle English words borrowed from French now apply the label ‘Anglo-French’ (abbreviated AF) to all medieval French words known to have been used in French documents written in Britain before about 1400. This treatment acknowledges that literate English speakers then were typically bilingual or trilingual readers and writers who cultivated distinctive varieties of Latin and French as well as of English, and that words moved easily from one to another of these three languages. The label ‘Anglo-French’ should not be taken to mean that the etymology is attested exclusively in Anglo-French, for in the great majority of cases the word has a cognate form in the continental northern French of Picardy and Normandy or the French of Paris and its surroundings.”

This note alone demonstrates the complexity involved in tracing etymologies. It is often hard to find the date that a word came into English usage as well as the parameters which define a specific language such as Anglo-French or Old French. And though suffixes were common in Old Engish, documents demonstrate that English borrowed this specific suffix from French about a century after the Norman Conquest.

One of the oldest known usages of -ess in English comes from the Ancrene Wisse, which is a Guide for Anchoresses written in the early 13th century. Since the anchoress tradition no longer exists today in the same form, the term has also fallen out of use. However, the Middle English offers insight into the suffix -ess itself.

-Ess is of particular interest to me because what was once so popular has now become almost an anathema. For example, female TV and radio show hosts now prefer host over hostess, because the latter sounds more like someone throwing a party than an official job title. In other words, hostess runs the risk of belittling or demeaning rather than granting respect. Likewise, stewardesses are now flight attendants and actresses prefer actor. (It is interesting to note that the decline of stewardess has also dropped the usage of steward, while actors and hosts remain unchanged.)

Dictionary.com notes that: “Nouns in -ess denoting occupation or profession are rapidly disappearing from American English. Airlines now refer to cabin personnel as flight attendants, not stewards and stewardesses. In the arts, authoress, editress, poetess, sculptress, and similar terms are either rejected or discouraged and almost always replaced by author, editor, poet, sculptor. Nouns in -ess designating the holder of public office are hardly ever encountered in modern American usage. Women holding the office of ambassador, mayor, or governor are referred to by those titles rather than by the older, sex-marked ambassadress, mayoress, or governess. (Governess has developed a special sense in relation to childcare; this use is less common in the U.S. than in Britain.) Among other terms almost never used in modern American English are ancestress, directress, instructress, manageress, oratress, postmistress, and proprietress. If the sex of the performer is not relevant to performance of the task or function, the neutral term in -er or -or is now widely used.”

The suffix -ess demonstrates one of the many, many ways in which language is always changing. -Ess seems to capture the instability of this precise juncture in history which combines women’s rights, Me Too movements and political rhetoric. Our desire for precision, accuracy and political correctness adjusts our speech, whether we notice it or not.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of language, or suffixes, I suggest the following resources (in addition to dictionaries, of course!).

  1. The History of English Podcast on suffixes

  2. The Online Etymology Dictionary

  3. The Dictionary of Prefixes and Suffixes by Manik Joshi

  4. The Ancrene Wisse

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Book Review:  The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner by Ezra Taft Benson

April 12, 2019

Thanks to Ned Boulberhane, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Someone once asked me why I read books from writers whom I don’t seem to like very much. The response was simple. If one only finds ideas that they agree with on a whole-hearted level, they will end up only seeing what they want to see. Sometimes it is good to be challenged, even if it is not always in our comfort zone. That is what brings us to the discussion of The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner.

Ezra Taft Benson served as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but perhaps his legacy is more rooted in his work as President of the Mormon Church (Dew 1987). In this work, which was an oral presentation transcribed into book-form, Benson attempts to make the case that the United States Constitution is a document that is the epitome of human freedom, as well as also having divine origins. Perhaps there is something poetic about how Benson introduces the subject, saying that sharing ideas through freedom is the work of God, and using coercion to force ideas onto people is the work of Satan (Benson 1986), yet that stands as only a poetic statement. Perhaps, what is more fascinating is when Benson discusses the relationship among freedom, governments, and the citizens of a nation. There is a bold statement that the people are superior to the government (of the United States).

To retort, in the United States, the government is not comprised of monarchs or theocrats, it consists of representatives of the people. Every member of the United States government is also a citizen or resident of the country. In short, the people are not superior to the government of the U.S.A. They are the government. As the monologue-style presentation continues, Benson states that the Constitution is a Heavenly Banner, for the Lord has approved the Constitution, and it is a document that emboldens freedom, which is the way of God. However, this fails to identify Article VI of the United States Constitution, which states that no one must pass a religious test to hold public office (Story 1874), not to mention a Bill of Rights, which also includes freedom of religion.

There is an important distinction that needs to be made regarding the meaning of these words. Freedom of religion applies not only to those who follow the pathways that Ezra Taft Benson is describing. It also applies to any other spiritual practice that is law-abiding and even to those who choose to refrain from spiritual or religious practices altogether (Cooley 1871). Therefore, to say that the Lord approved the Constitution is a statement that can stand as only a metaphor or figurative piece. It is the same Article VI and First Amendment that allow someone such as Ezra Taft Benson to hold the position of Secretary of Agriculture, for there are those who question whether or not members of the Mormon Church should be members of the government at all. Moreover, these are not relics of the Eisenhower administration. The same challenges were put forth during the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in 2011 (Tarpley 2012), and once again the First Amendment and Article VI triumphed over all.

Not to provide a complete sense of disagreement, Benson makes a compelling case for small government, arguing that the United States limits government functions to avoid tyranny. This is an interpretation that holds a lot of supporters, for whether it is checks and balances or even allowing people to believe and practice the spirituality of their choosing (or lack thereof) they are protected. The government cannot force a spiritual belief system on the citizens. Benson’s argument expands into a rather unique stance at this point, where he makes the claim that we cannot expect a higher level of morality from our elected officials.

While Benson makes some strong claims about the origins of the Constitution and who approved of it, there is some agreement here, for if our politicians are not monarchs or theocrats, we must recognize them as ordinary human beings and citizens. A person is a person. Therefore, we must approach our elected leaders as representatives of the people, but also use the laws of the land to monitor the actions of our elected few, so our nation does not turn into a domain dominated by tyrants. Sometimes we turn to writers and thinkers that we expect to disagree with, and we find that there are times when we have found the unexpected point of agreement. The world is wide.

References

Benson, Ezra Taft. The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner. Deseret Book, 1986.

Cooley, Thomas. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Lawbook Exchange. Ltd., 1874.

Dew, Sheri L. Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography. Deseret Book, 1987

Story, Joseph. A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States of America. Gateway Editions, 1874.

Tarpley, Webster. Just Too Weird: Bishop Romney and the Mormon Takeover of America. Progressive Press, 2012.

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Inscription Trail

March 29, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Enhance today’s blog by listening to three different musical interpretations of the land:

Zuni Rain Dance (30 seconds)

El Corrido de Norte” by Los Halcones De Salitrillo (4 min)

A’ts’ina: Place of Writings on Rock” by Michael Mauldin (1 min)

Inscription Trail may be off the beaten path according to today’s standards, but this was not always the case. As early as 1200 AD this place became a vital rest stop. Near the western border of New Mexico, Inscription Trail sits at the base of a sandstone bluff and presents one of the only watering holes for many miles in what can seem like a desolate place. Among the petroglyphs, foreigners began to inscribe their names into sandstone, hence the name Inscription Trail. This place maps history in a way seldom seen today. It is a literal palimpsest of names, cultures, events, and ecology.

To begin, the land itself is ever-changing. While El Morro (Spanish name for “the headland”) holds water, the bluff’s top is arid, dry, and windswept. Snow and rain run into El Morro’s twelve foot deep pool and is the only visible water for miles which is how it quickly became the watering hole for all peoples of the west. It also supports wildlife rarely seen in the desert such as mud swallows, tiger salamanders, and catfish. Juniper trees and shrubs at the bluff’s base contrast the windswept, sky-filled cliff. Crows nest in sandstone fissures as El Morro echoes with the fall of water.

As Europeans arrived and later as homesteaders moved west, El Morro became popular with scouts and explorers. Of course, Native Americans already knew of it. A Zuni town stands atop the great sandstone bluff at A’ts’ina (place of writing on rocks). Petroglyphs of bear and bighorn sheep date back to 1275 AD. (It would be another three hundred years before the first Spanish explorer arrived.) The pueblo atop the cliff contains almost 900 rooms and is thought to have housed about 1000 people.

In 1583, Don Antonio de Espejo traveled from Mexico (New Spain) along the Rio Grande into what is now the state of New Mexico. As part of a journey to rescue some abandoned friars, he met many native tribes. Some of their interactions were peaceful and some not, however he relied upon their information. Various indigenous communities told him of way to find metal ores and mines which immediately interested Espejo. He extended his travel without permission from the church of Spain. In his journeys around the Zuni pueblo, he discovered El Morro (though he called it “El Estanque de Penol” or “pool at the great rock”). Espejo did not find minerals or gold, however his journey did mark a defining point of New Mexican history which was to become an important site for missionaries.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the ways in which land carries historical reminders. This is, of course, true for El Morro. A few hundred years after Espejo, many wagon trains rolled through this area, and the name changed once again to Inscription Trail. This single place which contains a vital watering hole lists hundreds of names etched in stone. All names and images on this wall offer a glimpse into history.

Few names have received more attention than Juan de Oñate. According to the Inscription Trail Guide provided by the National Park Service, Oñate’s inscription is “one of the oldest and more famous inscriptions at El Morro…inscribed in 1605, fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In 1604, Oñate left the settlement of San Gabriel with thirty men in search of the ‘South Sea’ (the Pacific Ocean). During their trip, the group visited the Gulf of California as well as the South Sea. On his return, Oñate left this inscription:

Paso por aq[u]i el adelantado Don Ju[a]n de Oñate del descubrimyento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.

Governor Don Juan de Oñate passed through here, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605.”

It should be noted that this was Oñate’s second time through the area, having first passed through in 1598. Oñate has a fairly brutal history in New Mexico. He founded settlements for the Spanish and also became the first colonial governor of Santa Fe, as recognized by New Spain (Mexico). In doing so, however, he is best remembered for the Acoma massacre where he killed about 1000 people of the Acoma pueblo. Those who were not killed (500 or so) were forced into servitude. Of those, Oñate ordered the removal of one foot from all men above the age of twenty-five. He was eventually banished from New Mexico and exiled from Mexico City for such brutality. His name is etched in perpetuity along Inscription Trail. Don Juan de Oñate is not the only political figure to sign his name here either. General Don Diego de Vargas also passed through in 1692 and much like Oñate, his record is also problematic. After the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, he reestablished Spanish control over the Native Americans and then became governor.

General Don Diego de Vargas’s inscription roughly translates to: “General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico, at his own expense, was here, in the year of 1692.” (Photo credit: Alissa Simon)

General Don Diego de Vargas’s inscription roughly translates to: “General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico, at his own expense, was here, in the year of 1692.” (Photo credit: Alissa Simon)


Not all travelers at Inscription Rock were conquistadors, generals, or adventurers. Some were homesteaders and settlers looking for land. The Inscription Trail Guide explains:

“More than 150 years later, below Vargas’s inscription, three men added their own inscriptions. P. H. Williamson, Isaac Holland, and John Udell were members of the first emigrant train to try this route to California in 1858. The original caravan consisted of forty families and was led by L. J. Rose, who was born in Germany but made his fortune in dry-goods in Iowa. At El Morro, they left their inscriptions and then moved on to the Colorado River, where they were attacked by Mojave Indians.

“Thanks to journals kept by the immigrants, we know that survivors of the attack, including Rose, the Baley sisters, and Udell and his wife who were both in their sixties walked most of the way back to New Mexico to wait out the winter. Some of the party started again for California in 1859 in the company of Lt. Edward F. Beale.”

Beale himself is a fascinating figure. Following the Mexican-American War, Congress commissioned a number of expeditions into the deserts stretching between California and Texas. (They were, of course, eager to gain access to this uncharted wilderness and failed to recognize that much of this land was already inhabited by a wide variety of Native American tribes.) Beale’s Wagon Road stretched from Arkansas to Los Angeles. In addition to charting the road, Beale attempted to use camels. While the camels performed well, he notes, they eventually lost out to mule trains (and mule lobbyists). Beale’s signature is not on the wall, however some of his men did record their names.

Finally, it seems a fitting end to Women’s History Month to note that a handful of women also signed their names at El Morro, including the above-mentioned Baley sisters. There is also an inscription by the then twelve-year-old Sallie Fox.

Whatever name we choose to call this place: Inscription Trail, El Morro, or A’ts’ina, it reminds us of the complexity of human history.

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Sor Juana's Letter

March 22, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born Juana Ramírez de Asbaje. Her actual date of birth is unknown, but is thought to be around 1651. At the age of three, she walked to a local school, told the teacher she was five years old, and asked to learn to read and write. Inspired by Juana’s determination the teacher helped her, even though she realized her young age. From that day on, Juana dedicated herself to studying. She became known for her wit, intelligence, and beauty. Despite all odds, her actions and ambition led to an elite education at a time when poor women had very few educational resources.

Juana quickly outgrew the constraints placed on her as an illegitimate child from the small community of San Miguel Nepantla, Mexico. She moved in with an aunt and uncle in Mexico City by the age of eight. There she received formal training from a tutor. She learned languages such as Latin and Nahuatl, and set a rigorous studying regimen for herself. At this time, Mexico was mostly controlled by Spain and maintained a Spanish royalty. Juana caught the attention of the vicereine who immediately asked for her to join their life at court. She so astonished the royals that the Marquis de Mancera invited forty intellectuals (all men) to debate against Juana on different subjects. He writes, “[I]n the manner that a royal galleon might fend off the attacks of a few canoes, so did Juana extricate herself from the questions, arguments, and objections that these many men, each in his specialty, directed to her” (Paz 98). Yet at the height of this royal fame, she decided instead to join a convent. So, at the age of twenty, she entered into the convent of San Jerónimo.

Octavio Paz notes that while Sor Juana embraced many of the characteristics that define the Baroque period and wrote in traditional Baroque forms, she used unique material. Paz describes a style that represented the conflicting emotions of the era such as the desire for instant riches, personal freedom, and a new spiritual kingdom (71). Additionally, Sor Juana was very ambitious. Her poems demonstrate ability and ego. In the book Madres del verbo/ Mothers of the Word: Early Spanish American Women Writers, Nina M. Scott explains some of Sor Juana’s talents. She writes, “From her earliest years Sor Juana was a consummate poet. The baroque was an age splendidly suited to her talents: she loved the play of dialectical opposites, puns and double entendres, labyrinthine syntax and imagery, much of it derived from classical mythology. She was also skilled at all the poetic forms in use at the time and enjoyed showing her mastery of them” (56). It is possible that she entered the convent to avoid marriage, which would make too many demands on her time to allow for studying.

While the vicereine was busy publishing Sor Juana’s material in Mexico and Spain, the church asked her to write about religion. As her fame grew, the church, however, became uncomfortable with Sor Juana’s secular poetry and ‘manly’ aspects (which is how they viewed her religious critiques and opinions). They were uncomfortable with a woman who capably and eloquently criticized the church since theology was thought to be a man’s realm. As a result of her fame and her secular writings, Sor Juana received a notice of censure from “Sister Philotea.” In reality, the Bishop of Puebla penned the letter, but in order to soften the blow he signed his letter “from Sister Philotea.” The actual source was clear to Sor Juana, and to the rest of the convent, however.

Sor Juana replied to his letter with a logical appeal for her situation. Scott explains, “Sor Juana’s famous ‘Reply to Sister Philotea’ is one of the unique documents of the seventeenth century, for it is one of the only ones to record so eloquently a woman’s cry for intellectual freedom” (58). This letter is worth reading solely for the historical content, yet it also speaks to continued struggles for equality today. As part of her defense, Sor Juana explains that God gave her these talents, which she has used on behalf of the good of the church. She defends her continued education and goes even further, asking that all women receive education. Below are a few excerpts from this astounding letter which dates back to 1691 (translated by Nina M. Scott).

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“My studies have not been undertaken to hurt or harm anyone and have principally been so private that I have not even made use of the guidance of a teacher but have relied solely upon myself and my work, for I know that studying publicly in schools is unseemly to a woman’s modesty because of the hazardous familiarity with men and this would be the reason for keeping women from public studies; not delegating a special place for their study is probably because as the Republic has no need of women for the government of magistrates (from which area, for the same reasons of propriety, the former are also excluded), [the state] is not concerned with that of which it has no need, but who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do? Well, then, why cannot a woman profit by the privilege of enlightenment as they do? Is her soul not as able to receive the grace and glory of God as that of a man? Well, then, why should she not be just as capable in matters of information and knowledge which are of less import? What divine revelation, what rule of the Church, what reasonable judgment formulated such a severe law for us women?” (75)

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“If I have read the prophets and secular orators (a lapse of which Saint Jerome himself was guilty), I also read the Holy Doctors and Scripture and cannot deny that to the former I owe countless gifts and rules of good conduct.

“For which Christian will not avoid wrath when confronted by the patience of a pagan Socrates? Who can be ambitious in view of the modesty of the Cynic Diogenes? Who does not praise God in Aristotle’s intelligence? And finally, what Catholic can fail to be astonished when contemplating the sum of moral virtues in all of the pagan philosophers?” (76)

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“Your Reverence wishes that of necessity I should be saved in a state of ignorance, but my beloved Father, can one not accomplish this end and be learned? In the final analysis, for me it is the easier path. Because why should one be led to salvation by the way of ignorance if this is repugnant to one’s nature?

“Is not God as ultimate goodness also ultimate wisdom? Well, then, why should ignorance be more pleasing to Him than learning?

Let Saint Anthony achieve salvation with his holy ignorance and well and good, while Saint Augustine goes by a different path and neither one of the two is wrong.” (76)

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“Has Your Reverence any stake in my betterment by reason of obligation, blood relation, upbringing, Church authority, or anything else?

“If it is pure charity, let it seem charity and have it proceed as such, gently, because exasperating me is not a good way to bring me around, for I do not possess such a servile nature that I will do something when threatened which reason would not persuade me to do; neither would I do for human respect that which I would not do for God, for to give up everything that might give me pleasure – even though it might be very just – is good if I do it to humble myself when I might want to do penance, but it is not when Your Reverence wishes to obtain it by dint of reprimands, and these not in secret as befits paternal correction… but publicly, in front of everyone, where each one reacts to a situation to the extent of his understanding and speaks as he may feel.” (78)

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana, or, The Traps of Faith. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Harvard, 1988.

Scott, Nina M. Madres del verbo/ Mothers of the Word: Early Spanish American Women Writers. Ed., Trans. Nina M. Scott. University of New Mexico Press, 1999.


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