Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Indispensable Word

You know, one of the best, most vexing things about Latin is that it is so dang ambiguous.

Take the word pes or pedis, for example. It's where we get pedestrian, pedestal, pedal, and so many other foot-related words. But for the Romans, the term encompassed the whole lower leg generally - there wasn't a special word for things like "calf" or "shin". (How this became the language of medicine is really beyond me.)

But the wonderful thing about this ambiguity is that it let Latin speakers enjoy multiple meanings simultaneously. We do this in English too, to a much lesser degree. "Season" can mean the time of year, or spicing your food. "Mine" can mean an excavation, or something that belongs to you. So much of the most beautiful Latin poetry really can't be translated, because putting it into English requires choosing just one of a word's multiple meanings, and destroying the others.

So gratia seems like a good word for today. It means grace, for one thing. You hear it in phrases like Maria, gratia plena (Mary, full of grace). It also means "for the sake of" - which you invoke every time you use the abbreviation e.g. (exempli gratia, or "for the sake of example"). It's also thankfulness (gratitude), pleasure (gratifying), kindness (graciousness), and something freely given (gratis, gratuity). The phrase in gratiam even means "friendship".

Tecum in gratiam fui et semper ero.
This is something I did not appreciate at the time. Let me tell you: when it's already midnight and you have thirty more lines to translate before 9AM, ambiguity is not your friend.

But after this week, I am revisiting that.

English is by many counts a million-word language - a fact I've enjoyed and extolled to my students. After all, we don't just have a foot. We have a foot, ankle, heel, arch, ball, shin, calf, toes - some of us even have cankles! With so many words, it's easy not to get attached to any particular one. So if the word "diversity" gets too loaded, for example, we'll move on to "inclusiveness" or "multiculturalism" with no trouble. Because when you have a surfeit of anything, no single one is very valuable. When you have a million words, or a million workers, you might not even notice when a few of them get damaged or thrown away.

This is the dark side of plenty - one that we as a culture are seriously struggling with. We have more than at any time in our history - more people, more freedoms, more entertainments, more possibilities - and yet we've never felt worth less.

And I think in Latin we see the remedy for that. This old, sacred language carries old, sacred values. It was born from a time when people were precious, though not all well-treated - when everybody was valuable, because every body was valuable. It's been enshrined in a faith that says we are more than what we do, that we have worth beyond our works. And it lives on in us today, in our mouths and thoughts, as we go on blithely speaking daisy-chains of Latin children and grandchildren. This enduring language does not lose words easily. You can't cut out a word like gratia without leaving a bleeding hole in the lexicon.

So maybe it's not too late. Maybe our culture can re-learn to value its people the same way a language values its words - by giving them more than one meaning. Kristen was a disposable nonentity as long as she was a case number, a patient file, an unfortunate statistic. She has all too easily fallen through the cracks. But when you-all got to see her as a teacher, as a terrible-cat-lover, as a roommate and a friend and an underdog success story, she became real and precious to you - as multifaceted and meaningful as the Latin gratia. And now she can't be lost or forgotten about, because she is too many things to too many people.

So that's it, you guys. That's my plan. When we're well, we can be our own presenters. We can share as much of ourselves as we choose to. But when we're sick or hurt or grieving, we need someone else to communicate us - and if you're reading this right now, you have that power. You can be someone's avatar - communicate a person we otherwise wouldn't see or care about. This is how we can stay real to each other. This is how we make sure we don't get crushed by the engine of plenty.

Kristen is my indispensable word - my gratia, my grace. And now you-all are hers.



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