Certainly we craft stories out of words, but some of my favorite stories are the ones the very words contain, and that we often overlook. I became enchanted with word histories, or etymology, in grad school, when I studied multiple medieval languages—some Romance languages, some Germanic—and saw the same words in different classes and then watched their meanings change as time passed. Linguists talk about languages developing like trees. It’s certainly true they live and grow and branch out. I’m more interested today in individual words, which feel a little more like people to me, with cousins in other branches of the family tree, a history to trace, and a story to tell.
“Fantasy is a place where it rains.” When Italo Calvino begins his lecture on Visibility in literature, he begins with an image from Dante’s Paradiso, of pictures raining in to his imagination directly from God. I went to sleep after reading Umberto Eco’s first Norton lecture, the first of “Six Walks in the Fictional Woods,” and awoke this morning to that miracle of Southern California weather, The Occasional Drizzle, so I started thinking of rainy images and images raining down. This is a good time to write.
I have read Calvino’s essay at least a dozen times. (I know because I’ve taught it annually for over a decade). My book bears the traces of all these readings—comments and some sketches in red, blue, green, black, and purple ink, and pencil. He discusses “two types of imaginative process: the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression” (Six Memos for the Next Millenium 83). My book bears this out, as I diagram what he’s argued and illustrate what he’s described. This has been enough, every year, to send my head in to a tailspin. Which comes first, the text or the image? And how do we understand one without the other?
When I start small, I remember that when I teach Children’s Literature, I spend some time talking about concretization. I probably should in other classes too, but especially when I’m thinking of kids reading stories, I imagine them building elaborate images in their heads as they read. This is why movies made from books are often unsatisfying to readers—they’ve already imagined, or concretized the pictures from the descriptions given in the book, and nine times out of ten, they imagine things quite differently from the film’s director, so they spend the movie fussing that “that’s not what the house looked like” or “she’s supposed to be taller/shorter/darker/lighter/happier/smarter/better.”
In the movie case, the text has given rise to images in the reader’s and director’s heads, and then to comment on the movie (or explain our mental images), we need to go back to words to describe it.
We move back and forth from text to image to text to image. (Presumably the author started with an image he or she was trying to convey too, right? We know Calvino did sometimes. He claims some of his novellas, like The Non-existent Knight and The Cloven Viscount began as images in his head of an empty suit of armor trotting around in Charlemagne’s army and a soldier split in to his good and bad sides by a cannonball.) So sometimes it goes from the author’s image to the text he writes to the reader’s image to her description or discussion. So how far does this go? Can we even understand images without using words, or understand words without visualizing them?
Some subjects, certainly. Some texts don’t create images, just abstractions. But I will confine myself to thinking of fiction here, and there is almost always some visual element—characters in a setting carrying out certain actions—all of that can be rendered in images. Maybe we always move from image to text, back and forth like a pinball. Maybe that’s how we understand the world. My inner English major wants to argue, to say we go from words to words all the time—that’s literary criticism—but as I think about this relationship, I can see myself imagining the text taking place and then trying to explain it. We understand words in terms of images, and we understand images by translating them in words.
Calvino says we spend our lives moving back and forth between text and image, so the literature we read needs to be visual in important ways. Eco describes fiction as a forest we wander through—a world we enter, wend our way through, and leave different. Perhaps that’s because we’ve seen, experienced, and understood things in our mental cinema while we wound through the words.
The story of words always comes up in my Chaucer class, where we work toward reading Middle English. The first week we always go slowly, getting to know the language. I spend a good bit of time trying to make it seem more familiar than it might look at first sight (or certainly than it sounds at first listen). As we worked through that first sentence that so many students memorize, “Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote, the droughte of March hath perced to the roote,” we paused and made sure we found all the cognates. ‘Whan’ = when (never trust a vowel!), ‘shoures’ = showers, etc. We stopped at ‘halwes.’
Chaucer says pilgrims everywhere are headed “to ferne halwes.” I assured my students they knew these words. ‘Ferne’ contains ‘far;’ you can see it in there (especially if you’ve learned never to trust a vowel), and ‘halwes’ is just ‘hallows.’ Blank stares. Hallows—you know, like All Hallows’ Eve. Enough impatient faces that I realize we’re losing that idea, and I shift gears in to story-telling.
Hallow is an old word related to ‘holy,’ basically. One can have hallowed objects—things that have been made holy, like the items present in a mass, or something holy can actually be a hallow, like the holy grail or the spear of Longinus, or… Harry Potter fans… the Deathly Hallows. So Chaucer’s pilgrims were traipsing off to visit hallowed places and objects. Holy things. Taking, in fact, some holy days. “Holidays” is just a contraction of this. But we don’t think about Labor Day in a context of holiness anymore. Neither do we, apparently, think of Hallowe’en in this context. But I do. Because it’s a great story.
In the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, where every day is a saint’s day, and people can celebrate both their birthday and their name day (the day devoted to the saint they were named after), one day a year stands out: All Saints’ Day. On the first of November all saints are worshipped, not just one or two, like St. Michael on September 29 or St. Francis on October 4, to name a few recent biggies. There are various reasons that this may have come to be, but the one that appeals to me is the clash of the old pagan festivals at the end of the harvest, and the day of holiness that follows, honoring all the saints. There is a powerful strain of death there—for the pagans, the end of the season, the end of productivity, the beginning of the death of the world, before it renews in the spring. For the Christians, the day of saints is already a celebration of hundreds of dead people; it is easily extended to honoring all the dead. All Hallows’ Evening, shortened to Hallowe’en (especially if you keep the apostrophe), is the celebration of the dead, an invitation to think about life, death, and life after death, and, you can see an easy story to be told about the thinning of the veil between worlds–more commerce between the living and the dead, for good or ill, depending on your approach. Whatever you believe, this night has its history in holiness. Hallows.
P.S. I’m thinking of adding little “word-tales” more frequently, either as whole blogs, like this one, or as small additional tidbits on other blogs. If you’d like more of this sort of etymology-as-story, let me know. Thanks for reading!