Monday, April 25, 2011

Understand - the abcedaria of a writer

Understand - Word Origin & History

O.E. understandan "comprehend, grasp the idea of," probably lit. "stand in the midst of," from under + standan "to stand" (see stand). If this is the meaning, the under is not the usual word meaning "beneath," but from O.E. under , from PIE *nter- "between, among" (cf. Skt. antar "among, between," L. inter "between, among," Gk. enteraepistamai "I know how, I know," lit. "I stand upon." Similar formations are found in O.Fris. ( understonda ), M.Dan. ( understande ), while other Gmc. languages use compounds meaning "stand before" (cf. Ger. verstehen , represented in O.E. by forstanden ). For this concept, most I.E. languages use fig. extensions of compounds that lit. mean "put together," or "separate," or "take, grasp."
OK - this might seem boring to many of you and I would 'understand' but it is riveting to me. I want to understand how words came to be. And this is one that has bothered me for years - how can I be 'under' something to get it? suddenly when I read this I am in a grove of trees - cedar trees - with scholars. I'm probably a man because otherwise I'd be too busy serving mead or what have you to be able to 'grok' what is happening. I'm between and among others who want me to grasp - to take their meaning.
And isn't that what we are doing when we write? I want my reader to fully get the ungettable. Because as lovely as language is, as primal as it may be, it is still the symbol and not the thing. This I understand. My work as a writer is not to become disillusioned and cranky about this but to keep on attempting to come as close as possible. Metaphors are the way we do this - metaphors beat the hell out of definitions for getting readers to grasp what you mean. In my last post, I took the word turquoise to represent the mysterious other, the richness of story. It was probably a stretch but I like stretching and as long as it is true for me I think I can stretch credibly. Using the word 'stretch' right there is another metaphor. I'm not physically stretching. Our language is built on metaphor. It has to be - language itself represents something that is not itself - why the pomo's are having such fun in university. Take it apart and try and put it back together. What could be more essential while useless than that?
So...I am standing in a grove of cedars with scholars. I'm getting a bit warm (it is July in Greece after all). Costa, who is a bit of a bore, is puncturing the air in front of his face with his hoary old finger - thinking that'll help with his argument no doubt. I sigh as I think of my wife and how her arm looks like a fine bow when she reaches for a cluster of grapes on the vine.  My mind goes to whether I can leave the grove without anyone commenting, for I'm young and I don't want to offend my elders, when Niko turns to me and whispers, 'your sigh is louder than even this blowhard's rant - be off to your new wife and I'll say I sent you on an errand'. Ah, he understands. I flee.


Margot Kinberg said...

Jan - I love that scenario under the cedar tree! And you're quite right; metaphor is such a powerful way to communicate our meaning to others. I'm pretty sure I use it a lot more than I think I do when I write.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I love thinking about language and its origins. Metaphor is a great way to communicate a thought to readers without hitting them over the head with what we're trying to put across.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

I love to learn new words, more importantly know their meanings.
I enjoyed your post very much,
I thank you for the lovely comment you made.


Eve said...

Nice! I am also completely enthralled by language and the origins of words. Mind you, many of the things I find fascinating cause the eyes of most people to glaze over! Just the fact that we can communicate such complex and intangible thoughts to anyone gives me a rush...because you're right..the language is the symbol, not the thing...It's such a pleasure to 'meet' you Jan! Great post!

Carol Kilgore said...

I've read several posts on Understanding today. All different. Seems there are a lot of takes on the subject, but the bottom line is how critical it is that we DO understand one another.

Ann said...

I love your story in the grove under the cedar trees. It is so interesting to seek out and Understand the origin of the words we write.