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Essay Eleven, Six Wonderful Nouns of Foreign Origin
The American novelist, poet and essayist James Baldwin (1924-1987) said it well: Words are “the most vivid and crucial key to identity: [they] reveal the private identity and connect one with, or divorce one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.” (1) Take the experiences of being in another country whose language you don’t know, or being without your “tongue” (with laryngitis, for example) in your own land. Your identity remains, at best, unexpressed and, at worst, compromised. But even when your tongue is working properly, in your own country or with your own “language group,” it sometimes is difficult to use words as an effective instrument of identity expression. That is how this book intends to help you—by giving your words that can become an essential component of your identity.
(1) In his 1979 essay "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me What Is?" appearing here:
But words do more than express identity in a community. They, in fact, provide us with our own private language-world. Linguists coined the word idiolect in 1948 to describe the phenomenon long observed but without a name—the fact that each person has his or her own linguistic system, differing in some details from that of all other speakers of the same dialect or language. (2) An idiolect is our total repertory of speech habits over time. The key challenge in life is to discover the unique speech pattern that “fits” our nature or heart and then merge that pattern with other speakers of the language so that our words contribute to the symphonic richness of cultural communication and give us our place in the world.
(2) OED, s.v.
Just as we find our clothing style by repeatedly trying on clothes, thinking about our “colors,” and changing aspects of our appearance to match the clothes, so we find our linguistic style by “trying on” words of all kinds. We “try on” new words by learning how to say them, where they came from, what they mean, how they relate to other words, how they open other worlds that have hitherto been closed to us and how they might be profitably used today. This chapter focuses on several words drawn from other languages that might find a home in your speech. In introducing them to you, I will first open the world out of which they came and then show the way that the word can be used to make your communication more precise and lively.
Words that concern me in this chapter are Gnosticism, bildungsroman, gedankenexperment, wunderkind, enfant terrible, and savant. Along the way we will learn about Schrodinger’s cat, Maxwell’s demon, and coming-of-age stories. Though these words may make a daunting list at first glance, they become friends when you take some time with them.
Ever since two events--Dan Brown’s mention of Gnostic Gospels in his 2003 best-selling book The Da Vinci Code and the splash attendant on the publication of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas in 2006 (3), interest in Gnosticism and the Gnostic Gospels has been strong. I first ran into the phenomenon well before it was even a glint in the eye of most people—through a paper I gave on Gnosticism in an undergraduate religious studies class in 1972-73. The word Gnosticism derives from the Greek verb “to know” and refers to an approach to truth or ultimate reality which suggests that secrecy, special revelations, liberation from the cares or afflictions of this world, and initiation rites are central to the gaining of truth. In this understanding, Gnosticism is an approach to life and truth.
On the other hand, Gnosticism refers to a collection of documents as well as a movement that grew up parallel to and with intermittent connections with the mainstream earliest Christian movement nearly 2000 years ago. One of the hotly debated topics among scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity is whether this Gnostic movement ante-dated or post-dated and how it influenced the shape of earliest Christianity. The (Gnostic) Gospel of Thomas, for example, discovered in Egypt in 1898, is not one of the four Gospels in the New Testament, but claims to be a series of statements made by Jesus to his disciples, statements that don’t sound precisely like the Jesus we know from the NT Gospels but which have enough of his “voice” to make us wonder. For example, the opening lines to this Gospel are:
“These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and the twin, Didymos Judas Thomas wrote them down.” (4)
(4) An easily-acesible article describing the Gospel of Thomas is here:
The opening words express classic Gnostic sentiments; there is truth in the world, it is communicated in secret words to a special elite, and you have to go through this elite in order to get to the truth. This stands quite in contrast to the belief that truth is spoken plainly, is readily accessible to those with “ears to hear,” and can be expressed in understandable language.
The study of Gnosticism was also fueled by the 1945 discovery of a series of texts from Egypt now called the “Nag Hammadi” library. (5) These texts, written in Coptic (one of the languages of ancient Egypt), came from the fourth century CE but probably were translations of earlier Greek or other language originals coming from as early as the second or first century CE. Many of them express Gnostic philosophy but mingle the language with Christian-sounding phrases.
(5) A helpful web page describing these these texts is here:
A person may have a Gnostic temperament or spirit; his/her personal style may be to parcel out dollops of knowledge only to “initiates” who will properly honor him or her. The word can refer to a person who is “in the know,” but it really suggests an approach to truth requiring special initiations, secret sayings, arcane knowledge and private teachings.
A bildungsroman is a “coming of age” story, a narrative, primarily novelistic, but also possibly autobiographical, of how a person negotiated the perils of youth. The word not only takes us into the heart of an important literary genre and way of discovering the world but it tells us something about a language, German, which builds words by connecting words. The word Bildung means “education” and a Roman is a “novel.” Though the genre is generally said to have originated with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister in 1796, the word didn’t enter English until 1910: “The flashes of intuitive criticism and its weighty apothegms add to its value as a Bildungsroman in the best sense of that word.” (6)
(6) Cited in the OED, s.v.
The word bildungsroman can be used as a general term to capture several sub-genres of writing, such as the Erziehungsroman (a real mouthful), which focuses more on one’s training and formal education or Kunstlerroman, which refers to an artist’s training. Bildungsroman covers the expanse of things such as one’s education, social development, and the way one connects with society’s expectations. A bildungsroman, thus, is a document or story describing self-development.
I have taken so much time to describe it because of our need, in my judgment, to provide models of potential narratives, experiences, challenges and affirmation of young people as they “come of age.” How are they to understand loss? How do they take praise correctly? How are they to negotiate the difficult world of relationships? How to can they establish work that flows out of and fulfills the longings of the heart? We can provide good words to help them encase their thoughts, to build their own bildungsroman.
The bildungsroman is always written after the fact, when one is an adult and looks back at the forces shaping the young person. In that connection, it is a sort of noble lie, to use Plato’s word, because it is the construction of a story that may or may not actually reflect what was experienced at the time. My experience with writing autobiographies (and I have written three) is that the first attempt to write one’s past serves as more of a justification or affirmation of the choices one has made than a searching examination of failure, loss, confusion and directionlessness.
One of the most striking uses of the term in 2009 was in Michiko Kakutani’s article on the literary shaping influences of President Obama’s life. (7) Though much of the article is taken up with mention of which books played a role in helping Mr. Obama find his voice and style, Kakutani speaks of his autobiographical Dreams from My Father:
“[as] both a searching bildungsroman and an autobiographical quest to understand his roots—a quest in which he cast himself as both a Telemachus in search of his father and an Odysseus in search of a home.”
(7) "From Books, New President Found Voice," New York Times, January 19, 2009, A1.
Ah, I see we need to understand Homer’s Odyssey to be fully able to understand her! But the point is clear. A bildungsroman [German nouns are capitalized; only English proper nouns are] is not simply an autobiography; it is what one might call a goal-oriented autobiography, a quest to understand how training, education, lessons, losses and choices have made one what one is today.
We receive an extra gift in her article, because she also provides a quotation from his book on the nature of words. Words, for Barack Obama, have a transformative character. “With the right word,” he wrote, “everything could change—South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.” Thus, we not only have a brilliant new word to use, bildungsroman, but another reason why words are so special: they transform reality before our eyes. I think the possible uses of bildungsroman in our speech today are endless. When interviewing someone for a job, say, “Don’t give me the full bildungsroman but only a few formative influences.” When you interview and someone asks you about your past, ask him/her if they want the complete bildungsroman. You will either get the job even before you tell the story, or you will be summarily thrown out of the office. In the latter instance, you never were right for the job anyway.
We stay in the Teutonic world for this term, derived originally from physics but now useful in a number of worlds. Its sound, with heavy accent on second syllable and lighter accent on the last, approximates the seriousness of the idea—a “thought experiment.” Several fields have a related term. Law, for example, calls a gedankenexperiment a “hypothetical,” i.e., a made-up scenario to test how the basic principle of law you are exploring may be illustrated. As mentioned, a gedankenexperiment is, literally, a “thought-experiment,” a discipline carried out only in imagination or thought; it really has no necessary connection to real life. Yet, if you skillfully perform a gedankenexperiment, you can critique a theory, discern whether something is true, come up with your own explanation of something, or refine your approach to a problem without spending millions of dollars. The ability to construct a gedankenexperiment, like the ability to come up with telling similes, is a reflection of intellectual power and confidence. You can train yourself to come up with gedankenexperiments to help you evaluate the claims that people are making around you.
Two of the more famous gedankenexperiments in physics are known as Schrodinger’s Cat and Maxwell’s Demon. The first aids us in exploration of quantum indeterminacy, while the second explores a potential contradiction in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. According to this (8) website, Schrodinger developed the former in 1935 to demonstrate an apparent conflict between what quantum theory says is true about the nature of matter and what we observe about matter on the macroscopic level.
Take a cat, put it in an enclosed box, along with a device containing hydrocyanic acid (fatal to cats). Also place a small amount of a radioactive substance in the box. If even a single atom of the latter substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, breaking the vial, releasing the poison and killing the cat.
Depending on whether or not you are an ailurophile, you may be offended or delighted at this experiment. The point, however, is that from the perspective of the one conducting the experiment, and not observing the cat, you can’t tell whether the cat is dead or alive. It is, therefore, from the perspective of quantum physics, both dead and alive. Yet, of course, it is only one or the other. Hence, a tension results. Now you know a little about Schrodinger’s Cat.
Well, Maxwell’s Demon is an imaginary creature created in 1867 by the mathematician James Clerk Maxwell to contradict/test the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (9) A box is filled with gas and divided in half. A molecule-sized door is placed between the two sections, manned by a “demon.” This figure only allows faster molecules into one section of the box, leaving the other side to have only slower molecules. (10) Since average molecular speed corresponds to temperature, the temperature increases in one section of the box and decreases in the other, contrary to what the second law—which argues for entropy—would indicate.
We don’t need to understand physics (or these examples) or be drawn to the field to use the word and practice of gedankenexperiment. If you are so inclined, make these thought experiments or hypotheticals part of your life. You will be surprised at two things: first, how few people often think this way and second, how valuable you become to those around you.
Wunderkind, Enfant Terrible, Savant
Three words that will vault you to the top of the class in discussing people are wunderkind, enfant terrible, and savant. All three emphasize giftedness of people, but they each come from different “neighborhoods,” so to speak, and need to be understood from those “hoods.” The most neutral or unencumbered of the terms is wunderkind. Like gedandenexperiment, it is a combination of two German words expressing the idea of a precocious child or, more recently, any “youngish” person who has broken in on the scene and made a quick name for himself. I say “himself,” because all references I have seen to it are to young men who have made an enormous splash in the world, but I suppose it could just as easily apply to girls or young women.
The old word for wunderkind was "precocious." Precocious is itself derived from two Latin words meaning to “cook prematurely or beforehand.” It entered into English in the mid-seventeenth century in horticulture: if a plant or fruit was precocious, it bloomed or ripened before expectation. Only late in the eighteenth century was the word precocious associated with people. An example from 1868: “She was somewhat precocious in love matters." Perhaps because of the ambiguity of its usage, George Bernard Shaw borrowed the German word Wunderkind in 1891 to express the idea of a childhood prodigy, especially in music. Mozart’s childhood, of course, was in the background:
“Every generation produces its infant Raphaels and infant Rosciuses, and Wunderkinder [plural] who can perform all the childish feats of Mozart.” (11)
(11) Quoted in OED, s.v., Def. 1.
By the early 1930s the term had entered fully into the vocabulary of psychology. From 1931: “A great many instances of Wunderkinder were brought together by the late Dr. Leonard George Guthrie, in his Fitzpatrick Lectures to the Royal College of Physicians (1907), entitled ‘Contributions to the study of Precocity in Children. . .” (12) Einstein used the term in the musical sense in 1947: “Chopin was a wunderkind, both as virtuoso and composer.”
(12) Thus, Guthrie still called them "precocious" children in 1907, but the ensuing generation had seen the rise and triumph of wunderkind to describe super-accomplished children.
By the 1930s wunderkind’s meaning slightly expanded to include not just prodigiously talented childhood musical geniuses but young men whom we might refer to as “whizz–kids.” Eli Culbertson, the contract bridge guru (now there is another borrowed word that needs attention!), said: ‘He [i.e., a bridge player] may belong to a proud class of wunderkinder who ‘never need a book’ or ‘have no system.’” Thus, the boundaries of the wunderkind were expanding. From 1982: “He’s received a fair amount of meida exposure—the thirty-year old wunderkind.”
The precise limits of the term aren’t clear, but let’s agree that it now refers to any person, thirty or under, who demonstrates remarkable skill, even genius, in any human endeavor. Such a person is a wunderkind. It may, indeed, be you.
But often people who are this gifted or precociously productive aren’t wired like the vast majority of people. To use a spatial analogy, their big hand doesn’t always point to the twelve when the hour sounds. Such a person can either have deficits in social development or can so break in on the scene that they, well, make a scene. The former person is known as a savant and the latter, an enfant terrible. In fact, the “old” term for a person precociously gifted in one area but with significant social limitations was an idiot savant. The “idiot” part of it was derived directly from the Greek and means “unique” or “peculiar,” without the implication of ignorance or mental deficiency. We used that term in American speech until well into the 1990s, when the “idiot” part of it became too tough for us to bear culturally. Thus, a person formerly known as an idiot savant became simply a savant. (13) I think the great cultural shift in discarding the term idiot from “idiot savant” came in the wake of the increased prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders in our society.
(13) The point isn't trivial. Historically, an idiot savant was a "person with generally impaired intellectual and social functions who is extremely gifted in a particular way; freq. as a musician or in the performance of rapid and complex mental arithmetic." OED, s.v. The word savant, however, has also been part of ur language since the eighteenth century, and it means "A man of learning or science; esp. one professionally engaged in learned or scientific research," OED, s.v. Thus, when we dropped the word "idiot" in idiot savant, for cultural sensitivity reasons, we merged two terms that really have little to do with each other. We have, as a result, caused confusion now in our use of the term savant: it means both the gifted, and awkward, child, and the serious scientific researcher. This is a lesson on how the development of language by human sensitivity can occlude meaning.
If a savant is one with precocious tendencies but significant social challenges, an enfant terrible is either a child or young person who embarrasses elders by untimely remarks or a person “who compromises his associates or his party by unorthodox or ill-considered speech or behavior; loosely, one who acts unconventionally.” (14) Thus, the key to understanding the enfant terrible (AHN fahn terr EEBL) is the discomfort s/he creates for others because of the way that his/her contribution shakes things up. Care should be taken to distinguish this individual from an enfant sauvage (a “wild child”) or an enfant gate (gah TAY; a “spoiled child”).
(14) OED, s.v.
A new history of the modern conservative movement in American politics focuses on the formative role of William F. Buckley, Jr. (15) The reviewer, Columbia University history professor Allen Nevins, in speaking about Buckley’s evolution, said:
“The enfant terrible days were over, and he was entering a cooler and more self- promoting period of his life.” (16)
(15) Richard Brookhiser, Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement (2009).
(16) "God and Man atNational Review," New York Times, July 5, 1009, p. 8.
The notion of enfant terrible as “precocious young man/person with unconventional or even offensive ideas or actions” receives a good instantiation in Kathryn Harrison’s review of a recent biography of George Gordon, Lord Byron. (17) Byron was, in a word, a sybarite or voluptuary. Harrison describes the book as a “complicit (what might she mean by that?) biography of the great Romantic poet and enfant terrible, [which] skates over its subject’s literary career to showcase the dissolute behavior Byron’s critics decried as that of a ‘second Caligula.’” (18)
(17) The book is Edna O'Brien, A Short Daring Life (2009). The review is in the New York Times, June 14, 2009, p. 9.
(18) Pateint reading of good writing makes you pause. Do you understand "decried?" Not too difficult a word. How about "second Caligula?" You have to do a little reading in the early Roman Empire to discover the way his name quickly became associated with uncontrolled excess.
I had originally thought I could include about a dozen words of foreign derivation in this chapter and “breeze” through them. But when you begin to see that these words deserve caresses and not mere mention, you have to take your time with them. Then, as with most people with a little attention, they open up like the spring peony. Now, like the proverbial story of the elves who make the shoes, with a “little bit” of leather always left over, I find myself still having a dozen foreign-derived words that merit attention. The next chapter will tell their stories.