(1) the hipster poser who will spend the next ~1600 words creaming his pants over the idea of words
My Latin teacher in high school made me love the dictionary, which is a weird-ass book to claim to love.
She loved to connect English words to their Latin roots, and she spent huge portions of class time tracing the words on our weekly vocabulary lists to their English counterparts. She kept an enormous dictionary in the corner of her room with thousands of thin pages delineating the precise linguistic genealogy of each word. It was one of those dictionaries that was so big that it had its own dedicated book stand.
Not gonna lie, it was a massive pain in the ass to use, unwieldy and heavy and with text so teeny and crammed that you had to squint to make anything out. It takes a masochist to love a book like that—which I, in fact, am. To me, dictionaries aren't just utilitarian collections of “meanings” of words. Dictionaries contain family trees and huge sprawling stories hidden between the definitions. Dictionaries were maximalist literature before Thomas Pynchon made it cool.
My Latin teacher’s favorite word was colere.
Colere means to cultivate, both literally and figuratively. It can refer to farmers tilling the land—in fact, the Latin word for farmer, agricola, comes from a compound of ager (field) and colere (to cultivate). But colere also indicates the figurative sense of cultivating, to honor or to worship. In the Aeneid, when Virgil describes how the goddess Juno loved the city of Carthage more than all the rest of the world, Virgil uses the word colere. To cultivate is to cherish, to love, to worship.
We see this reflected in the perfect passive participle of colere, which is cultus. This form of the word is where we get English words like “cult.” It’s a word that’s taken on a negative connotation recently, but in its most essential form just denotes a system of religious belief, usually centered around a religious figure or object of worship.
We also get the form cultura from colere. It’s where we get the English word “culture” from, along with all its compounds. If the root of “culture” is worship, that means that all culture is fundamentally a form of worship. Agriculture, horticulture, apiculture—these denote the cultivation of fields, gardens, and bees respectively. Farmers, gardeners, and beekeepers are all cultists (hey look, another derivative of colere!) in their own right. Anyone who participates in anything which might broadly be categorized as “culture” is also a cultist. Just look at the Latin. Just look at a dictionary.
In short, I love dictionaries, and I think you should too.
Words are dirty old coins, crusted over with patina. Every now and then, it’s good to pick a word off the page, feel its weight on your tongue, and wonder. Words are ragged demigods, ancient things crawling forward at a glacially slow but steady pace. Think about words. Read dictionaries. Read multiple dictionaries because a word is not so simple a thing that it can be contained in just one dictionary entry. Read about the histories of words: etymologies and phonological changes and the steady drifting of language through time.
Some words are born as a fusion of earlier existing words. Chiaroscuro is a word which indicates the arrangement of light and shadow in visual art. It comes from Latin clarus (clear, bright) and obscurus (darkened, obscured). And so chiaroscuro is quite literally a marriage of what is bright and what is darkened. Some words represent the marriage of multiple language families. Workaholic is a word most of us are familiar with, made by jamming together “work” (from Old English werc, “work”) and the suffix -aholic, derived from “alcoholic” (from Arabic كُحْل, al-kuḥul, powdered antimony).
Languages have friends and ancestries and descendants. They marry, they change, they have families. It’s good to think of words as people.
We are who we say we are. We become what they tell us we are.
It should be said that this isn’t a highly rigorous treatise on etymologies or anything. I’m not a linguist. I’m more concerned with how words feel. I’m trying to disabuse people of the notion that words are just words. Words are framing devices that we use to describe the world, but they don’t have to map precisely to reality. Poetry is a particularly good way to see this. Crack open some of Sylvia Plath’s work and you’ll see what I mean. In the "real" world, blood is red. Concrete is hard. Bones are broken. In Plath's world, the body is Roman. Heaven is hygienic. Distance is untouchable. Anne Carson (also a poet) said it best in Autobiography of Red (also not a rigorous treatise on etymologies):
“The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning ‘placed on top,’ ‘added,’ ‘appended,’ ‘imported,’ ‘foreign.’ Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.”
Epithets (derived from adjective) matter. They matter a lot. An epithet is what separates Aphrodite Pandemos, a goddess of earthly love, from Aphrodite Ourania, her celestial counterpart. And Aphrodite is only an epithet away from her aspect as a war goddess, Aphrodite Areia. “Latches of being” indeed. Epithets—adjectives—are of cosmic importance. They represent the theological properties of the divine, binding the universe to its functions. They tie the gods to their roles. Nouns name the world, but adjectives color it.
(Note: adjective might have its roots in Greek, but the English word adjective comes from Latin. It’s a compound of ad (towards) and jacere (to throw). It’s a loan translation from the Greek word. I only mention this because jacere is where we get the root of the English word ejaculate from and I find this endlessly hilarious.)
All this navel-gazing about words isn’t anything new, by the way. Way back around the second century CE, Plutarch was writing The Life of Romulus, in which he talks at length about how the name and the functions of the Roman festival of Lupercalia were derived. He works his way through the history behind its name, linking it to the older name of the festival, Febrata. Plutarch further attributes some of the Lupercalia festivities to the Greek festival Lycea, the feast of the wolves, which somehow connected to the she-wolf who nursed the infant Romulus, founder of Rome.
The actual activities of the festival are nuts. According to Plutarch, it involves the sacrifice of goats. Two boys of noble families are selected and their foreheads are touched with a bloody knife and wiped with a milk-soaked wool, which Plutarch remarks may be a remembrance of Romulus’ nourishment by the she-wolf. The boys then run naked through the streets whipping women of childbearing age, who deliberately run into their path, believing the whipping to bring fertility.
But, critically, it isn’t enough for Plutarch just to talk about the festival and what went down during the Lupercalia. Plutarch’s exegesis of where the festivities came from and how the name was derived occupies just as prominent a spot in the text as the celebration itself.
Identity, therefore, is defined not just by what we do, but how we describe it.
Synonyms: 旦一, Danyi
(1) a. the natural conclusion of this essay
b. the sanctity of words and their enormous histories, drawn upon for the purposes of affirming identity
c. the feeling you get when you think about your own name and realize that it, too, is a word or a collection of words, that it too has a
history; the wonder that crackles in your brain when you realize that the little collections of syllables that you define yourself by are
like those silly little epithets they used to put after Zeus’s name, the little pieces of your divinity, your own “latches of being”
(2) a. the original Chinese name, later converted clumsily into English as “Daniel”
b. Daniel who, according to biblical tradition, spends a night sentenced to death in a den of lions; he is saved by divine grace, an angel
answering his prayers and shutting the jaws of the lions; occasionally you, the modern Daniel, feel as this biblical Daniel must have,
closed in the lion’s den, hemmed in on all sides by those who want only to consume you; only faith can save you now; but you are not
the old Daniel, and you have never particularly felt any faith, never felt close to God the way others have; you have never been good at
c. but this is the true power of words; nominative determinism is dead; you might sculpt yourself however you choose; Daniel might be
like the old Daniel, might choose to let the history seep into his bones, but he might also choose to cast it all away; the moment your
name leaves the mouth of the one who named you, the moment your epithets are applied, they are yours
d. in Mandarin, the first character means “daybreak”; it is a new day for the words of your name
(1) the middle ground; words are sacred, but there is nothing sacred about language; change it as you need; interpret and reinterpret and
perpetuate the eternal process of exegesis; this too is history