January 19, 2016
Wildfire is any large fire which spreads quickly and is hard to put out. Originally, it referred to the Greek fire, a highly flammable (firesome? flamesome?) substance deliberately launched, particularly at rival ships, to devastating effect.
The same thing can happen with words. Like any meme, words can spread swiftly and with inevitable and ferocious effect. The Greek wildfire was created deliberately for a particular end. Yet it is hard to force a meme or word to spread like wildfire. Unless we have an accelerant to speed and intensify the flame, that is. And one such accelerant is analogy.
The Spread by Analogy: Successful Examples
We used to say popular antiquities. But then in 1846, William J. Thoms came up with the word folklore as a deliberate Anglo-Saxonism. Now the phrase popular antiquities belongs with the Dodo, and formations in folk– have caught fire and spread wildly by analogy: folk art, folk music, folk musician, folk-song, folk-dance, folk-tale, folk-hero, folk-medicine.
Likewise, foreword was created in the nineteenth century probably as a loan translation of German Vorwort. It hasn’t completely replaced the Latin-based preface, but it’s made serious headway. Foreword sits nicely alongside the English word foreskin, itself created in the sixteenth century as a loan translation of the Latinate prepuce. In truth, who now would rather say prepuce or preface than foreskin and foreword?*
Another favourite Anglo-Saxonism of mine is handbook. This great word was the original Old English, which, like so many others, was ousted by Latinate manual in the Middle English period (from the Latin root itself meaning “hand”). During the nineteenth century, the word was given life again in imitation of German Handbuch. Apparently this word was decried in the beginning. But what could now be more natural or logical than handbook?
The Spread by Analogy: Your Turn
Indeed, the analogy of such successful words, and other words of similar form such as forehead, means the accelerant is already in place. We merely need to try coming up with other analogous words. If we slip them into our speech and writing, who knows, they may too spread like wildfire.
What new forms can you come up with in folk-, –lore, hand-, –book, fore-, and –word? Have you tried using them in conversation? Are you brave enough?(!) I’ll post up some forms I use in a forthcoming post: plenty of time for you to think up your own as well!
*However, note that preface as a noun is probably buttressed by the use of preface as a verb.
© 2015-2016 Bryan A. J. Parry
featured image from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire#/media/File%3AGreekfire-madridskylitzes1.jpg
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Posted by bryanajparry
December 23, 2015
Christmas, Xmas, Noel, Yule. So many names. But why? Christ-mass: that one’s simple enough. “X” is the first letter of the word Christ in Greek (Χριστος), hence Xmas. Noel comes from French, and ultimately the Latin, for “birth” [that is, of Jesus]. Yule, on the other hand, was originally the name for a heathen feast of around the same period.
Yule is therefore the homeborn English word. And as a non-Christian Englishman, I like to use Yule to consciously stand for the cultural, as opposed to religious, celebration. Why? Because “Christmas” is and always has been about more than just Christianity. Eventually the word Yule fell out of use, except in some dialects, and was brought back to mainstream life in the nineteenth century.
The thought might occur to you: if the homeborn English word yule was replaced, perhaps the names of the months were too. And that’s exactly right. Here’s a quote from the venerable Bede’s The Reckoning of Time.
January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli
As you can tell by names like Eosturmonath, these are the words in their Old English forms. I’m not suggesting we replace our current month names with updated versions of the old ones. Threemilch isn’t going to be plainer and easier to understand than May. But I post them for interest sake and because they are our homegrown words.
As you can see, Yule was really a two month long period, roughly December and January, of feasting and celebration. One half before, and one after, the Winter solstice. Respectively these were named, Ere Yule and After Yule. This was coupled with a two month Summer period, one month before the Summer Solstice, one after. Again, Ere Lithe and After Lithe. That’s lithe as in ‘flexible, supple’. September was also known as hærfestmonað: “Harvestmonth”. Winterfilth has nothing to do with dirt; –filth comes from filleth, which is ‘fill’ as in ‘full’, and ‘eth’ as in strength: so, ‘winter-full-ness’.
So there we have it: the original month names in English and the true meaning of Christmas.
© 2015 Bryan A. J. Parry
Source for Bede’s The Reckoning of Time: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=yFsw-Vaup6sC&pg=PA53&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false
featured image from http://americanhumanist.org/system/storage/2/6a/2/3607/spirit_of_yule.jpg
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Posted by bryanajparry