Mind Your Langauge

dictionary

I love all the books (and there’s a lot of them) in my home library but the giant-sized Webster’s Dictionary (Unabridged) is one of my special favourites – all 3562 of its tiny-print pages. Each of its entries gives not only the current meaning of a word but also its origin and change/s in denotation and connotation over the centuries. Some words have flipped their meanings entirely. ‘Silly’, for example, now means ‘unwise, in want of understanding or common sense, foolish’; but the word originally came from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) sælig meaning ‘happy, good, blessed’. We can easily imagine that part of the reason that ‘silly’ took a dive from the positive into the negative was the rise of rationalism and scientific dominance over religion.

On the other hand, ‘pretty’ has experienced a lift in meaning. In the original Anglo-Saxon prættig meant crafty, sly, deceptive. Well, maybe we can fill in the gaps as to how the more familiar meaning of ‘pleasingly attractive, good-looking’ evolved.

But, the big Webster’s is getting old now and, while its 1932 publication date has allowed me to dip into it for invaluable insights about the origins and evolution of much of our English language, the vernacular is a very fluid thing. This is why the modern dictionary compilers are always adding, and sometimes subtracting, and often re-defining, words and their meanings. Just this year, Merriam Webster added such words as ‘truther’ – one who believes that the truth about something important is being hidden from the public and seeks to redress or expose the obstruction; and ‘photo bomb’ – someone moving deliberately into a photo shot as a joke or a prank.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added words like the double superlative ‘worstest’ to match its inclusion of ‘bestest’ in 2014. Other new entries in this year’s OED include ‘mankini’, ‘cyberbullying’, ‘sexting’ and ‘slow food’. There have also been changes and/or expansions in meaning for words like ‘friend’ which now takes in the Facebook variety of buddy. The word ‘follower’ has undergone a similar expansion – from old-style disciples to Twitter associations.

Now, is that pretty? Or is there something a little bit silly about that!

A Wait Problem

L'Horloge de Sapience (the Clock of Wisdom) from about 1450

As a society, we Australians are not very good at waiting. Being at the end of a long queue in the supermarket, or at the petrol station, or the ticket office is enough to send us into an agitated frenzy. Trolley rage, road rage, crowded train rage – you name it, we rage about it. Busyness is considered a virtue and anyone who is not ‘flat out’, head-down, tail-up’, ‘haven’t got a minute’ is obviously not pulling their weight in this country with some of the longest working hours in the world. Recently, a Sydney University study showed that one in five Australian workers puts in at least 50 hours a week while, overall, full-time employees work an average of 44 hours per week, placing us near the top of the hours-worked pile among the OECD countries.

Last year, Australians clocked up over 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime. The situation has reached such a fever pitch of activity that, for the past several years, The Australia Institute has nominated a day in late November as National Go Home on Time Day www.gohomeontimeday.org.au . And guess what? Today is the day – 22nd November, 2017.

Of course, once we get home, there’s little likelihood that we’ll be any less busy than we are at work as we rush to complete household chores, to fulfill social engagements and family commitments. Yes, we know what we should be doing: taking time to smell the roses; being aware; living in the present moment

But just what IS a ‘present moment’. Some of the great mystical writers of the Middle Ages sought to quantify the notion because they were concerned with entering wholeheartedly into a contemplative state. They recognised that merely being IN the world was to be in a state of constant distraction, so many of them chose to separate themselves from the distractions by seeking out isolated places where silence could surround them. Others acknowledged that unavoidable and constant distractions were part and parcel of being alive and so tried to work within the limitations. The fourteenth-century Cloud of Unkowning author* took a more lateral view, advising his readers that the work of contemplation was “the shortest work that can be imagined”. For him, that ‘shortest’ time was “no longer or shorter than one athomus”.  To the medieval understanding an athomus was the smallest quantity of time, indivisible and almost incomprehensible. It was approximately equal to one-sixth of a second and, therefore, the Cloud author is speaking of the attainment of the Divine as being virtually instantaneous. It is our modern-day equivalent of finding and experiencing God/Peace/Love in the absolute present, in every moment. The Cloud author further reminds his audience that “[we] shall be asked how all the time given [to us] has been spent … [for] nothing is more precious than time. In one little moment, heaven may be won and lost … [and] time is made for man, not man for time.” That is, the Cloud author stresses the importance of time, the necessity to use it effectively, and the infinite possibilities that time offers in each and every moment.

So, don’t forget to go home early today and, when you get there, take an athomus or two to appreciate all the possibilities of the moment.

 

*The actual author of the mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing is, ironically, unknown; hence he is usually referred to as “the Cloud author”.

 

Mirror, Mirror!

mirror

We all remember the magic mirror belonging to the evil queen in the fairytale, Snow White. Each day the queen would position herself in front of the mirror and ask, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?” And the mirror would reply, “You are, O Queen.” The queen would be reassured for the moment, content in the mirror’s lie and its acquiescence to her vanity.

                Throughout history, the mirror has been one of the most prevalent and potent metaphors for the folly of human vanity. One of the foundational Western myths, for example, is the story of Narcissus who fell helplessly in love with himself when he discovered his reflection in a woodland pond. So taken was he with the beauty of his own image, he could not leave the pond and so died there.

Today we, too, seem to be obsessed with our own images. We wouldn’t think of leaving the house without first checking ourselves in the mirror. Lifts in buildings have mirrored walls so we can pass the time by looking at ourselves as we ascend or descend. There are mirror apps for our phones. And our mobile phones are the new mirrors, providing us with the instant ‘selfies’ that we can enhance (or delete) before sharing them with the world.  We spend countless billions on lotions and potions in attempts to beautify ourselves and to ward off the aging process. Beauty and youth are idealized and idolised in glossy magazines, on the big and small screen, and across social media. And the way to happiness is often touted as being as easy as a few deft swipes of the plastic surgeon’s knife. The idea is that we’re only as worthwhile as our outward appearance. If we don’t look good, we cannot be happy. In this way, the mirror is powerful because we allow it to have power.

And its power over humans started a long time ago. Archaeologists have found evidence of the earliest mirrors being simply polished surfaces of natural materials – rocks like obsidian, for example – which could reflect back an image, albeit a hazy one. With time, the crafting of metals – copper, silver, gold – gave the self-viewer a slightly clearer idea of him/herself but it was still a rudimentary reflection. The glass mirror – the closest ancestor of our contemporary mirrors – is recorded from Roman times but it was really during the Middle Ages that the quality of glass became good enough to return a clear reflection. Around that time, the manufacture of a much smoother glass enabled a relatively blur-free surface to be achieved and its reflective ability was increased by backing the glass with a metal such as gold leaf or a silver-mercury combination.

The medieval mirror par excellence was the work of Venetian glassmakers on the island of Murano. Their backing material of choice was kept secret for many decades but it was known to include mercury in the gilding process which, of course, made the final product ‘problematic’. Still, that didn’t dampen the general enthusiasm for mirrors (though, of course, their cost made them a luxury item for the wealthy only). After that, the reflective quality continued to improve over the centuries as production methods advanced the clarity of glass.

As far as the mirror was concerned, there was no looking back!