TIMELESS WORDS


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JONAH AND THE WHALE” STONEWARE SCULPTURE BY KAYTI SWEEETLAND RASMUSSEN

A word is intangible. We can’t buy it in a store, hold it in our arms, or lock it in a safe. Yet, it’s infinitely shareable–we can send it to thousands and still use it ourselves.

A word is a link to history, a bridge to the future. The word ‘wisdom’, for instance, is the same word that was once spoken by the author of Beowulf, those same letters appeared in Shakespeare’s plays, Emerson wrote with the same syllables, and the reporter in today’s newspaper makes use of the very same word.

We might well wonder what words Jonah uttered as he was being slowly introduced to the interior of the whale. I’m sure the Bible has him sending up a plea to the Almighty to save him from almost certain familiarity with the digestive process soon to come. But what did he really say?

“Words are the only things that last forever; they are more durable than the eternal hills. William Hazlitt, essayist (1778-1830)”

There are so-called “good” words and “bad” words, and these sometimes change with the vernacular of the generations. Many of the words our parents thought of as bad words are in common use today. Bill Bryson says “More than 350 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to”. No other language has achieved such eminence, overcome such odds, inspired such majesty of thought, or caused such confusion as English.

New words come into existence every day, with the birth of new industries. Each profession and business has it’s own language peculiar to them. For instance the terms I might use as an artist would not be useful to a dog catcher or a Paramedic.

Scholars have divided the history of the English language into three periods. Old English (from the middle of the 5th to the beginning of the 12th century). Middle English (12th century through the 15th), and Modern English (16th century onwards.

To confuse things further, we have British English and American English, and we all fall under the designation as speaking the “Mother Tongue”. Erroneous words are sometimes introduced by respected users of the language who simply make a mistake. Shakespeare thought illustrious was the opposite of lustrous and for a time gave it a sense that wasn’t called for. More alarmingly, the poet Robert Browning caused considerable consternation by including the word twat in one of his poems, thinking it an innocent term. The work was Pippa Passes written in 1841 and now remembered for the line “God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world”. But it also contains this disconcerting passage: Then owls and bats, Cowls and twats, Monks and nuns in a cloister’s moods, Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

Browning had apparently come across the word twat —which meant precisely the same then as it does now—and somehow took it to mean a piece of headgear for the nuns. Though it caused much hilarity among generations of schoolboys, it was never called to Browning’s attention, because no one could think of a suitably delicate way to explain it to him.