Holiday Words

December 22, 2017

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

I have been busy wrapping presents. But I've also been wondering about some of the language that we casually throw around this time of year. So, in today's post, I am going to compile a couple of terms and tell you what I learned about them. Perhaps the most important word of the season (noticeably missing from this list) is gratitude. I am extremely grateful to the work of Evan Morris of The Word Detective for all of his etymology research and information, as always, couched in a sprig of humor.

Forgive – transitive verb: 1] To cease to feel resentment against (an offender); 2] to give up resentment

The Word Detective offers an excellent synopsis of the first word in our list. He explains:

The root of “forgive” is the Latin word “perdonare,” meaning “to give completely, without reservation.” (That “perdonare” is also the source of our English “pardon.”) When the Latin “perdonare” was adopted into the Germanic ancestor of English, it was translated piece-by-piece, making the result what linguists call a “calque” (from the French “calquer,” to trace or copy) a literal transliteration. “Per” was replaced by “for,” a prefix that in this case means “thoroughly,” and “donare” with “giefan” (“to give”). The result, “forgiefan,” appeared in Old English meaning “to give up, allow” as well as “to give in marriage.” In modern English, “forgive” has also taken on the meanings of “to pardon for an offense,” “renounce anger at” (“I forgive you for feeding bean tacos to my dog “) and “to abandon a claim on” (as in “forgive a debt”).

Deck out – phrasal verb: to decorate a person or object with something, usually for a special occasion.

This is one of my favorites because deck is just a silly and fun metaphor – a ship's deck or a card deck, does not matter. It participates in a lot of phrases, such as (but not limited to): deck the halls, hit the decks, not playing with a full deck, on deck, and stack the deck. Apparently we love our card jokes so much we transfer them to our halls. We could say “decorate the halls”, but that sounds pretty lame. Deck the halls it is!

Carol – noun: 1] an old round dance with singing; 2] a song of joy or mirth; 3] a popular song or ballad of religious joy

Again, The Word Detective wins the game by providing this bit of research:

“Carol” meaning a song or hymn sung at Christmas, has nothing to do with the personal name “Carol,” which is derived from the same Germanic root as “Charles.”

There’s a debate as to the origin of “carol” in the “song” sense, but English definitely adopted it from the Old French “carole,” and the favored theory traces it back to the Latin “choraules,” meaning “flute player who accompanies a choir or dance.” This trail leads back to the Greek “choros,” which also gave us “chorus” and “choir.” This is all very logical and fits in nicely with our modern English use of “carol” to mean a song usually sung by a group.

The original sense of that Old French “carole,” however, was “a dance in a circle accompanied by singing,” which has led to an alternate theory that the root of “carol” is actually the Latin “corolla,” meaning “little crown, garland,” carrying the sense of “ring” or “circle.” In fact, the original use of “carol” when it first appeared in English around 1300 was “a ring-dance accompanied with song.” Our modern sense of “carol” as a Christmas song didn’t appear until the early 16th century.

Tiding – noun: a piece of good news, usually used in the plural “good tidings”

Tide – noun: 1] a fit or opportune time; 2] an ecclesiastical anniversary or festival; 3] a space of time (obsolete)

Tide is a great noun. It is rare to hear tide in a sense disconnected with the sea. Yet, we still have remnants of those ancient roots in phrases such as Yuletide and Good Tidings. Traditions have a funny way of sticking around for a long time. It is particularly helpful to have songs and jingles to spread the language unanimously. Yule comes from an Old Norse word, and if we had the time, I would love to investigate the associations of Jul in Swedish and Norwegian. Since this is about English, however, I'll skip back to the idea of tides and tiding, which stems from Old English, meaning “time or season”. The Word Detective says, “If we wish someone 'good tidings' or hear the phrase 'tidings of great joy,' we are harking back to a related Old Icelandic word meaning 'news or events.'”

I hope this list increases your festive attitude! Happy holidays!

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Winter Solstice

December 23, 2016

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

We have just passed the 2016 Winter Solstice. The longest night and coldest temperatures often derive strong images of sadness or death. These are the days of greatest darkness, and yet, for all the dark, we also find hope for the coming of the light. Small cycles often represent much larger cycles, more difficult to coherently map out.

The larger picture includes, among other things, the summer solstice. These two, winter and summer, create a yin/yang balance of light and dark. In most literatures and philosophies, the one is framed by the other. About ten years ago, I found myself in Ecuador, participating in the dances of Inti Raymi. June in Ecuador is part of winter, which brings heavy rains and shorter days. Before the dance, I learned about the concept “tinkuy”, which signifies the coming together of two things. It grants one the ability to hold two opposing things in simultaneous balance. Even the name, Inti Raymi, celebrates the sun during a time of little sun. Summer and winter solstices represent something like a duality, or a yin/yang relationship. They are not oppositional in the sense of opposites, but really, more like a cycle. Dancing with a circular step down dirt streets, singing songs and wearing the colorful dress of Inti Raymi reminds us that it is about being present. This dance represents the continuum of life, in which the darkness is just as necessary as the light.

Many cultures focus on the changing of the light. For these reasons too, solstices often find themselves in literature. I love this stanza from Timothy Steele's “Toward the Winter Solstice”. It develops the ideas of so many civilizations and groups simultaneously, almost as if a performance of tinkuy.


Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born. - Timothy Steele, “Toward the Winter Solstice”

Enjoy your holiday and all the hope that it implies.

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Chaucer's Jokes

April 1, 2016

“April is the cruellest month” - T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

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

I hardly think that T.S. Eliot had Chaucer in mind when he wrote those lines. However, Chaucer does begin the pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales in April, and most of the tales are relentlessly cruel. But his cruelty is also full of laugh-out-loud hilarity. What else can we call the ironies spelled out by The Canterbury Tales? Who else has had the audacity to discuss God's governance and obedience through the use of a Clerk? Who else has been bold enough to have a friar uphold the oath of a fart? Or a Host who has no control? Or the Franklin's tale, a breton lay (a type of chivalric romance), told by the ignoble Franklin himself? A Monk who hunts and feasts, looking for prey instead of prayer? The list continues....

Chaucer begins the tales in April, but, contrary to Eliot, Chaucer chooses to laugh among the ruins. In the Prologue, he writes, “When in April the sweet showers fall/ And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all/ The veins are bathed in liquor of such power/ As brings about the engendering of the flower,/ When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath/ Exhales an air in every grove and heath/ Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun/ His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,/ And the small fowl are making melody/ That sleep away the night with open eye/ (So nature pricks them and their heart engages)/ Then people long to go on pilgrimages...” We should list the reader too, among the pilgrims on this voyage. And then, the people in this pilgrimage do all of those lovely things of spring in a slightly questionable, and at times, vulgar manner. Leave it to Chaucer to make a joke of the season itself, personified through the bawdy tales that follow and the people who inhabit the stories.

The Canterbury Tales are filled with fantastical stories, silly asides, jealousy, rivalry, and... most important for April Fool's Day... jokes. Chaucer chose to incorporate the French genre of fabliaux into his tales. These elements can be found in tales by the Miller, Reeve and Summoner. Though the genre was all but dead, Chaucer reanimates it through the use of his hilarious and irreverent characters. The fabliaux allowed Chaucer to step outside strict conventions of both language and religion. He created spoofs (think Saturday Night Live spoofs) in real time of people with real names and then made them slightly (or extremely) ridiculous. He describes characters that cheat, steal, chase money and/or sex and, of course, fart. His characters are fun because no one is left out, no one is safe. Chaucer obviates flaws in the stereotypes of society as well as the way man thinks about society. These seemingly frivolous tales make for excellent reading on a day dedicated to jokes.

“One shouldn't be too inquisitive in life/ Either about God's secrets or one's wife./ You'll find God's plenty all you could desire;/ Of the remainder, better not enquire.” - Miller's Prologue

Euclidean Utopia

December 25, 2015

Today, the day that celebrates the birth of Jesus, presents the perfect opportunity to continue our discussion of utopia. To catch up on past conversations, visit the last blog posts about Utopia here: (Universal Spirit and Utopia  or Imperfect Ideal ).

Looking for Paradise”, a song by Alejandro Sanz and Alicia Keys, grounds today's discussion. Feel free to listen while reading: Sanz sings: “Estoy buscando ese momento....Todo el mundo va buscando ese lugar...Looking for Paradise”. (“I'm looking for that moment...The whole world is looking for that place...Looking for Paradise”). A single soul looking for paradise in both a single moment and single location.

Any discussion of utopia must begin from a focal point: an individual, for example. Some form of context allows us to navigate both time and space, which otherwise appears fluid. Reason creates an association to both time and space in chronological terms: in terms of past and present and future. Therefore, our sense of space is also chronological. Is there an alternative way to structure our society? Alfred Kroeber suggests that “[s]ince the day of the Roman empire and the Christian church, we hardly think of a social activity except as it is coherently organized into a definite unit definitely subdivided.”

 Image ID: 60608956 Copyright: Mikhail Pogosov.

Image ID: 60608956 Copyright: Mikhail Pogosov.

Time is unavoidable. It allows for communication, structure and plan. It also allows us to think. There are certain, marginalized (and not well-understood) societies that speak in a language of perpetual present tense. Much like their lives, they do not discuss the future, and only abstractly narrate the past. Their past often involves deities, but not familial or ancestral members. These societies have structured their lives in a way different than mainstream societies. Language offers evidence of this structure, which reinforces the premise that we function in a pre-existing worldview, though we may not be aware of it. So, our solidly structured lexicon of past-present-future might actually hinder our engagement with an idea like utopia. We say utopia and simultaneously imply future utopia without even realizing it.

The I Ching states that “[a]ny journey is ruled by the twin houses of mystery and discovery.” But nowhere in there does it mention structure. Mystery, discovery, freedom: these are ideas opposed to structure. They function and regenerate in a world if not separate from, certainly opposed to, structure. We build a certain skill level, a certain art, when attempting to navigate either the completely new and foreign as well as a known and quantified social structure. Yet, we do create meaning from new environments by linking a new idea to an old, by assimilating characteristics and grouping like things together. In the Introduction to Euclid's Elements, he states, “Thus it is the province of Geometry to investigate the properties of solids, of surfaces, and of the figures described on surfaces.” So, if the figure we desire to define is utopia, then the path towards creation runs not through figures, but through events, through the most horrible and the most brilliant times of human history. These events have historically been the barometer of utopia.

 Image: 46829242 Copyright: Onur ERSIN.

Image: 46829242 Copyright: Onur ERSIN.

In the article, “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be”, Ursula Le Guin, however, suggests that our current situation is our utopia. She says that we might not recognize it, but in searching for some linear, contract-bound society, we aim incorrectly. Instead, she suggests something like “perservering in one's existence as a completely worthy social goal”. It is interesting to note the proposition that the pursuit of self leads to a utopian society. The interplay of individual and society is important, and this quote asks us to look back at Kroeber's quote from the beginning...the map of social subdivisions as they emanate from ancient times. Instead of mapping new terrain, Le Guin asserts our right to celebrate the existence that we have, the pre-existing pathways inside each one of us that leads to something great.

In this theory, there are a frightening number of unknowns and perhaps a sad realization that utopia is not filled with chocolate and luxury. But as we discussed in previous blogs about utopia, the impossibility of creating hard and fast categories for every scenario, of defining happiness for a multitude of individuals, is everpresent. Perhaps utopia is singular, but enjoyed collectively. Perhaps it is this single moment (by which I mean any moment, not necessarily a holiday) spent in celebration of something we cannot quite comprehend. Through participation, we can and do enjoy. “Estoy buscando ese momento ... Todo el mundo va buscando ese lugar..."

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