Beginning with GA..
GE and Beyond
GI and GO
GO and GR
GU to HA
Review-So You Think
So You Think...I
So You Think...II
So You Think...III
So You Think...IV
Seattle Bee I
Seattle Bee II
Open Worlds I
Open Worlds II
Open Worlds III
Words Open Worlds I
Bill Long 4/10/11
From the Interesting to Near-Impossible
My quest tonight takes me from obscure Georgian (Caucasus region; not Southern US!) and Sanskrit terms to some classically-derived words that help make knowledge more precise. One of the reasons I like and am challenged by the study of words is that they require me to be more definite in my expressions and knowledge. By being more precise, one can locate things in time and space more comfortably, thus allowing refined understanding of people, events and nature. Words also, as the title indicates, open up broad vistas of knowledge that we otherwise might have had no reason to develop. Thus, I look at deep study of words as comparable to training the body continually to be ready and able to run a long-distance race. You may not be required to do so very often, but the mere exercise and preparation enables you to do many other things with your body with great facility. That, then, is the hope and quest which motivates my work.
The Sanskrit-derived word is spelled in different ways by the Webster's Unabridged and the OED. It is mlechchha (Webster's) or Mleccha (OED). The ancient Indian meaning is a "non-Aryan or person of an outcaste race; a barbarian." In later usage it became "a person who does not conform with conventional Hindu beliefs and practices." Such a person is a "goy" (Hebrew), a "kafir" (Islam), an "unbeliever" (Christian); most religions have terms that separate those within the community from those outside of it. The reason for divergence in spelling is how one renders the "c/ch" sound in Sanskrit. That language has both aspirated and unaspirated forms, and even when one has the simple "c," sound, it can be rendered, in transliteration, as "ch." Thus, the OED version only differs from the Unabridged, in fact, in that the two c's are, in the latter, rendered as "ch's".. Mlec(h)c(h)ha. It is pronounced the same: "mulekcha." Kipling used the word, but it rarely appears in English-language material.
Well, while making life difficult for ourselves, we might as well take the other word, mkhedruli. Though I have studied Sanskrit and know something about the formation of its words, I am in the dark about Georgian and its pronunciation, though the OED has "me KE dru li." It is "the Georgian script of 33 (originally 38) characters as developed for secular use in the 11th century and still used for printing and writing the modern Georgian language." This secular script is complemented by the religious script, known as the "khutzuri," "Khutsuri," or "xucuri" script. By simply listing a few alternatives regarding the way the ecclesiastical can be spelled, I show you how spelling is not something rooted in the structure of the universe; it is a convention decided upon by committees of people. Actually, the Wikipedia article spells the ecclesiastical script "Nuskhuri." Let the spelling free-for-all begin!
Long ago (about 1980) I corresponded with the leading scholar on ecclesiastical Georgian, Prof. Neville Birdsall. I wanted to ask him about whether he knew a particular professor in the early days of Brown University's Religious Studies program (Dr. Robert Pierce Casey), who had mastered not only the classical languages, but also Armenian, Georgian and a number of langauges of the Christian East. He was most gracious in his sharing of knowledge--and I want to note that here, since Prof. Birdsall is no longer with us.
Going More Practical
About a dozen "western" words that have various degress of utility today but all of which open interesting worlds are coffle; zugzwang, lanigerous, urceus, xystus, devoirs, mobile vulgus, laniary, anamorphosis, anankastic, patter and soigne(e).
1. patter. Let's begin with one of the most interesting to me: patter. We naturally associate the word with "a rapid successin of light taps," though this meaning for the word only goes back to 1822. The first use of the phrase "the patter of (their) feet" was in 1849 (Coleridge), though Longfellow also found it useful a decade or so later. Yet, the word originated in English as a verb in the 15th century. The context in which it emerged was theological. To patter was
"to recite a prayer (in early use spec. the paternoster), esp. in a rapid, mechanical, or indistinct fashion; to mumble or mutter one's prayers."
Sometimes an author would talk about some one who would "patter" with his mouth while his hands were fingering religious beads. James Joyce, in the 20th century, used the word in this way: "Sometimes he used to put me through the responses of the Mass..and, as I pattered, he used to smile pensively and nod his head." The word, thus, is taken from the first words of that most famous prayer that one could patter, the "Paternoster..." or "Our Father..."
While discovering this interesting story, I decided to look up the phrase "hocus-pocus," which I had heard was formed on a similar model--the priest simply reciting, without much care, the most sacred words of the Eucharist, "hoc est corpus meum" ("this is my body"). The OED tells us that "hocus-pocus" appeared first in the 17th century to denote the name of a conjuror or juggler. From 1624: "I alwayes thought they had their rudiments from some iugling Hocas Pocas in a quart pot."
A 1655 quotation gives an explanation for how this emerged. From Thomas Ady's Candle in the Dark, we have this:
"I will speak of one man..that went about in King James his time..who called himself, The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus, and so was called, because that at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders..."
Thus, it seems as if the juggler/conjuror simply used Latin phrases, actual or made-up (and hoc est corpus meum may ultimately have been responsible for one of the them..after all, trying saying "hoc est corpus" very fast several times. It sounds like "hocus pocus..."), to try to establish his mystery and authority. But the suggestion that it actually was derived from the language of the Mass originated in Bishop John Tillotson's words in 1694:
"In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation."
Though the OED seems to want to play down the validity of Tillotson's conjecture, it seems reasonable that conjurors would have picked up mysterious-sounding Latin phrases "out there"
to make the basis of their work. Their use of "hocus-pocus" might also be a sort of judgment on the "magic" of the Mass, which was supposed to celebrate the transformation of elements into the Body and Blood of Christ. They, in contrast, would give the "true" magic by their incantations.