By ALAN WALL.
THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, said Ludwig Wittgenstein, is a graveyard of dead metaphors. They do come alive though, sometimes in a startling manner, when a new moon is shining in the sky. If this is a graveyard, then the resurrection men swarm through it all too often, digging out the dead to put them at the disposal of the living. No metal caskets are proof against such sharp enquiries.
In fact, what is notable about language is the way its remnants tend to be scattered across the surface of usage, rather than hidden underground. The verbal archaeology of the etymologist does not have a vertical axis, down into the dust and loam, but a horizontal one — if one can so describe the temporal axis. It is not that the words usually get buried, but that meanings are buried inside them. There have been as many skulls involved through the millennia, but the words once echoed inside them.
Obviously, the words are not always to hand. Words disappear; they fall out of use irretrievably, particularly when a language substantially changes form. So at the beginning of the Old English poem The Wanderer we have the word anhaga, meaning a wanderer, a solitary man. This word has now gone, with much else that once filled the mouths of the Anglo-Saxons. But take two other words: is and interest. They appear to require no examination at all. I might read in any newspaper today a sentence such as: ‘The only remaining question now is the amount of interest to be paid on the loan.’ If there is any digging to be done here, it is not immediately apparent to the eye.
Interest: it only joins us in this specific form some time in the fifteenth century, and its Latinate form indicates something living between a number of parties – inter, between, and esse, the verb to be. It appears to have had financial preoccupations from the beginning, and it continues to have them now, though it leads a much wider metaphoric life out amongst the general public. The interest on the loan is one thing, but whether or not you have any interest in me might be quite another.
And the word is has its cognate in the Latin est, but it also runs back all the way to the Indo-European esti. Whenever we utter the word ‘is’ we are evoking the earliest days of human speech. The atoms in our bodies relate us to distant exploding stars in the formation of our universe, and the atoms of our speech take us back to the earliest days of humanity. Asked an awkward question once, President Clinton replied: ‘It depends on what the meaning of is is.’ Quite.
Other words suffer irruptions, metamorphoses, historic twistings from which they emerge wearing a different armoury of meaning and connotation. Take the word assimilated. As applied to a Jew in Germany in 1920, it was a positive word, unless you were strictly orthodox. It meant a Jew who had become entirely German; who had left the medieval shtetl and joined instead the great enlightened world of Beethoven and Goethe. After 1945, the word assimilated took on a different meaning altogether; it now meant one of those Jews so convinced that they had been absorbed into the German cultural mainstream that they were likely to be oblivious to the lethal currents still tugging underneath the surface of that dark metaphoric tide. They did not understand how a word fixed firmly in the past of ancient worshipful behaviour, holocaust, was about to be invested with a new and terrible meaning: The Greek words holos, the same word for ‘whole’ that gives us wholesome, and kaustos, the same word involving burning that makes for a caustic remark, found a new use for themselves, first recorded in 1965. By then, it was describing an act of genocide, a term first employed in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, by combining the Greek word genos, and cide, an English form which links back to the Latin word for killing.
It would have been characteristic of the fully assimilated to find incredible the notion of a modern, civilised, European culture, exterminating its own citizens simply because their genos was not deemed to be German enough to facilitate their survival. The word assimilated still houses the ghost of similis inside it. Similitude; similarity. These people are like us, are they not? Our similarities are greater than our differences surely, or assimilation would never have been possible in the first place.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, lives in North Wales and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. A book written in verse and prose, Jacob, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and a second collection, this time of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed. A third volume of essays will be published in 2021.
An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.