“Language is fossil poetry,”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet”
“Language is the history that gave me shape and hypochondria.”
— Lyn Hejinian, My Life
“We should find the whole theory of evolution… lying concrete in our etymologies”
— Ernest Fenellosa, notebook
On private etymologies
I always wanted to spell aquiline as if it were akin to watermark. My fledgling Latin mistook bird for bath, and I was finally crestfallen to have it spelled out, in etymological ink, that aquila means eagle. The source directed me to its beak, hooked. But I still want to think of noses that are so pure of form they must have been distilled from a crystalline stream of blue blood, their design itself the watermark of a rarefied genealogical blueprint.
Landscape does too influence language, no matter how many words a real Inuit has for snow: surely the exposed pipes traveling the basement walls of my childhood informed my understanding of idiom. Pipe dream, a phenomenon with which I considered myself to be on intimate terms: it was a kind of hope you had which, released like a sigh in that basement room, must travel through miles and decades of complex pipelines before emerging as sound in the open air of a distant destination. “Not so,” said the inducting boyfriend. But the illusions of the hookah seemed unconvincingly flat.
In a footnote to a borrowed copy of Don Juan, I learned of the cyanometer and contemplated the exhaustion of metaphor. In eighteenth-century Switzerland, Horace Bénédict de Saussure developed an instrument for ascertaining “the intensity of blue” in the sky. Imagine an entire oubliette of Dewey Decimal, archiving all recorded poetics of the sky. Then consider the space alone of cerulean rhetoric.
…the caerulian vault (Homer, trans. Pope)
…the azur’d vault (Shakespeare)
The vast and sullen swell
Of ocean’s alpine azure. (Byron)
The sky is to be considered as a transparent blue liquid, in which clouds are suspended. (Ruskin)
…the color, the overcast blue
Of the air, in which the blue guitar
Is a form, described but difficult (Stevens)
the false azure in the window pane (Nabokov)
But here, Byron forgets the inventor’s name and would sooner repurpose the instrument for gauging blue stockings.
Even though a pound of gold will never weigh more than a pound of feathers
Six of one, my mother always said. Not, as it were, pronouncing an inverted fraction, but meaning six of one, half a dozen of the other. A mental bureau of exchange processed the shift from one currency to another, marveling at the smooth synonymy that could smelt a numeral into a baker’s count: beads on an abacus softened into fresh rolls. The beads were the bread rolls; the rolls were the beads: only a trick of the language divided them! But it didn’t occur to me until I was grown up and gone that one is not at all the other.
In linguistics, the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism is not quite so neat as that between a pill and a pencil sketch. Nor in life. I knew what I was supposed to be, how the prescribed behavior would have it. I honored the subjunctive mood, adoring its timeless demarcation of the hypothetical; I wrung my hands over the seepage of past and poultry into the supine present. But my efforts to properly conjugate the infinitive of my own self ended in solecism. The second, if not the very first, clause of a sentence was always syntactically stunted. There’s a gap between reading the Rx and a systemic absorption of a gelatin capsule’s contents. Worse, when I try to describe this, I can’t.
In Paris, at Père LaChaise, I saw my first columbarium. A specialized word that isn’t what it means but what the thing itself looks like it means. Latin for dovecote: it houses urns of human ash. Dovecotes, in turn, resemble post office boxes. Death looked like nothing so much as a post office, the pigeon holes crammed with long stemmed flowers and sealed envelopes. From there, carrier pigeons turned dove-souls onto another plane, like metaphor not literalized, but acknowledged.
Alyssa Pelish currently reads, writes, and teaches in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Her literary reviews appear frequently in Rain Taxi, and her creative work is pretty much always forthcoming. The etymology of associative thought is something of a hobbyhorse of hers.