Oct/Nov 2009 Poetry Special Feature

On Etymology

by Jennifer Finstrom

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

On Etymology

Word origins taken from Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

When I learn a word's history, its meaning
changes; there is no returning from that point.
Of course, we all understand how it is
with moon, the liquid connection
between lunar and lunatic: this is
felt where the blood gutters nearest
the heart. But other words hide their pasts,
keep old selves locked in cupboards,
in medicine cabinets, behind heavy doors.
For example, take focus. This simple word,
only two syllables, that we have come to accept
as a central point. But focus conceals a fiery

precedent. In Latin, it is a hearth or fireplace,
cognate with bosor, Armenian for red.
Johannes Kepler used it in an astronomical text
as the burning point of a lens or mirror.
And as well, there is no going back
to the image of chameleon as lizard. No, now
it exists fierce and golden, Greek
chamailéon or ground lion. This
transition to mammal from reptile
is almost as great as the difference between
blood and the root that lies behind it:
the Old Germanic blodan, possibly to bloom.


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