A Festival of Words I
Bill Long 3/22/07
From the Consolidated List and Some Others
This page, and the task initiated by this page, has a determinant impetus. That impetus was a local spelling bee in Portland last Monday evening--at the Mississippi Pizza Pub. The words for that Bee are taken from the 23,000 Consolidated Word List ("CWL"). One of the words everyone missed was guignon which, if you know your Old World monkeys, family Cercopithecidae, you could have spelled pretty easily. Indeed, the guenon shares that category with vervets, baboons, macaques, colobus, langur and proboscis monkeys--some of which are also in the CWL. Well, I decided as a result of that embarrassing situation at the Bee that I would not only try to learn the words from the CWL but would begin a long and detailed study into the Linnean classification system and the popular names of those Latinate living things. That is, I would build my vocabulary from the ground up rather than from the top down, which would mean that I was just studying words from lists or dictionaries. I would meet the guignon, so to speak, in its natural habitat and learn the world it inhabited. This will, I fear, become quite a large task, but already it is bearing some wonderful fruit. I am coming up with all kinds of words that I want to define and learn; and orders and classes of all other kinds of living things are now beckoning to me to study them. My friend Henry, with whom I eat lunch every other week, wanted to know, after I told him of my new study plan, if I knew the definition of "obsessive compulsive." I told him, "no." He laughed.
But I don't just want words from my travels through the plant and animal kingdoms to inform these pages; I want also to study closely hundreds of words from my list of 2710 from the CWL. I anticipate, then, that the next bunch of essays will reflect both of these interests. Join me if you will. I hope you will deepen your love of words as you do.
From the CWL, First
Let's spend the rest of this page exploring four CWL words: grammatolatry, gematriot, morosophist and spintherism. Grammatolatry is, literally, the "worship of letters," or more expansively, the adherence to the letter rather than to the spirit of a text. It usually has reference to people who seemingly worship the very words of the Scriptures, giving undue reverence to the actual words themselves. For example, a grammatolatrist might hold the text of the King James Version sacred, even though Jesus didn't speak in 17th century English. The word didn't appear until 1847: "This rigid adherence to the very letter of Scripture (Grammatolatry)." An 1871 quotation represents this perspective very clearly: "The worship of words is more pernicious than the worship of images; grammatolatry is the worst species of idolatry." Those who disapprove of grammatolatry no doubt embrace the words of St. Paul: "The letter killeth, but the spirit maketh alive."
While we are on "gramma," it is interesting to note the nearby word grammaticaster. Built on the same principle as words like poetaster (inferior poet; by the way, we also have the delightful word poeticule to signify the same thing), criticaster (petty or inferior critic), or philologaster (bungling philologist), the word grammaticaster is a term of contempt for a petty or inferior grammarian. From Ben Jonson: "He tells thee true, my noble neophyte; my little grammaticaster, he does."
Oh, by the way, a synonym for grammatolatry is bibliolatry. Bibliolatry is excessive reverence paid to books or more specifically, excessive reverence for the letter of the Bible. The Protestant divines in the 16th century placed more stress on the inspiration of Scripture than their Catholic counterparts; hence the Protestants were accused by their Catholic critics of bibliolatry. The word bibliolatry made it into English a full century before grammatolatry.
When the Precise Word "Lives"--Gematria
But why do we have to agree with those who characterize the ones loving the actual words of the sacred text as grammatolaters? Why, in fact, dismiss or criticize these people? Maybe the text itself is alive and life-giving, as rich in its meaning as the most delicious meal is rich in taste. One might find meaning not only through the words but in the letters of the words. That is what gematria does. Gematriot is simply the plural of gematria, and it means the use of letters to signify numbers which themselves have spiritual significance. That is, each word consists of letters, to each of which a number value is assigned. When these numbers are then added or multipled, it yields a "number" for the word that may have a significant spiritual meaning.
This web site argues that gematria, itself a Hebrew word, was first practiced by the Rabbis in the 2nd Cent. CE (the age of the tannaim). R. Nathan said that the phrase elleh ha-devarim ("these are the words") in Ex. 35:1 suggest 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabath. How so? Well, by some manner of addition which is still a mystery to me, devarim, because it is a plural, indicates 2; ha, which means "one" or "the," adds a third and elleh is equivalent to 36. There you have it; gematria, where letters point to numbers, which point to spiritual truth.
A personal note on this will not be out of order. When I was in graduate school (Ph. D. in the History of Religions: Early Chrisitanity from Brown Univ.), my revered doctoral advisor was Prof. Horst R. Moehring. He was a specialist in Judaism in Late Antiquity, focusing especially on the work of Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus. One of his papers I most appreciated was on the "number symbolism" in Philo, a man who, even before the tannaim, used this gematrial method. Prof. Moehring called Philo's method his "arithmology." To my delight, a portion of his paper is now online. He died in 1987, but Prof. Robert Kraft of the U of PA picked up on some of his work in this 1996 paper. In any case, these works show that the world of modern scholarship is quite interested in things gematrial or arithmological.
I think morosophist and spintherism, as well as many other fascinating words, must await my next essay.