By Anatoly Liberman
All words must have been coined by individuals. This statement surprises and embarrasses not only the uninitiated but also some language historians. We are used to thinking that “people” created ancient language and art, but what is people? (This question, though in another guise, will recur below.) A group of activists working together and producing in chorus meaningful sound complexes like big ~ bag ~ bug ~ bog? Or a committee like those on which we sit, organs of collective wisdom? As a rule, every novelty that does not die “without issue” passes through a predictable cycle: someone has something to offer, a small group of enthusiasts surrounding the inventor adopts it, more adherents show their support, the novelty becomes common property, and (not necessarily) the originator is forgotten. We have no way of tracing the beginning of the oldest words, and even some neologisms remain etymological puzzles, but the names of some “wordsmiths” have not been lost. For instance, Lilliputian was coined by Jonathan Swift, gas by J.B. van Helmont, and jeep (which later became Jeep) by E.C. Segar. As a rule, inventors use the material at hand. Swift seems to have combined lil, the colloquial pronunciation of little and put(t) “blockhead,” a slang word common in the 18th century. Van Helmont was probably inspired by the Dutch pronunciation of chaos. Jeep is sound imitative, like peep. In similar fashion, we have no doubt about the structure of the noun folklore (folk + lore), but the story of its emergence is worth telling.
William John Thoms (1802-1885) began his literary career as an expert editor of old tales and prose romances. He also investigated customs and superstitions. Especially interesting are his studies of popular lore in Shakespeare: elves, fairies, Puck, Queen Mab, and others. They were published in the forties, the decade in which he met his star hour. Special works on Thoms are extremely few (the main one dates to 1946), and the archival documents pertaining to him remain untapped, but he related some events of his life himself. It was not by chance that California Folklore Quarterly printed an article about him (“’Folklore’: William John Thoms” by Duncan Emrich, volume 5, pp. 155-374) in 1946. A hundred years earlier a letter signed by Ambrose Merton appeared in the London-based journal The Athenaeum. Those who have leafed through its huge folio volumes probably could not help wondering how the subscribers managed to find their way through such an enormous mass of heterogeneous materials. Yet that weekly had a devoted readership, and its voice reached far.
The 1846 letter is available in two modern anthologies, but outside the professional circle of folklorists hardly anyone has read it, so that I will quote its beginning and end. “Your pages have so often given evidence of the interest which you take in what we in England designate as Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature (though by-the-by it is more a Lore than a literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folklore,—the Lore of the People)—that I am not without hopes of enlisting your aid in garnering the few ears which are remaining, scattered over that field from which our forefathers might have gathered a goodly crop. No one who has made the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc., of the olden time his study, but must have arrived at two conclusions:—the first how much that is curious and interesting in those matters is now entirely lost—the second, how much may yet be rescued by timely exertion…. It is only honest that I should tell you I have long been contemplating a work upon our “Folklore” (under that title, mind Messes. A, B, and C,—so do not try to forestall me);—and I am personally interested in the success of the experiment which I have, in this letter, albeit imperfectly, urged you to undertake.” Not only did the editor of The Athenaeum welcome the letter. He opened a special rubric for “folk-lore,” and “Ambrose Merton” (this was Thoms of course) became its editor.
The letter was followed by an injunction, part of which is so much to the point that it must be reproduced here: “We have taken some time to weigh the suggestion of our correspondent—desirous to satisfy ourselves that any good of the kind which he proposes could be effected in such space as we are able to spare from the many other demands upon our columns; and have before our eyes the fear of that shower of trivial communication which a notice in conformity with his suggestion is likely to bring. We have finally decided that, if our antiquarian correspondents be earnest and well-informed and subject their communications to the condition of having something to communicate, we may… be the means of effecting some valuable salvage for the future historian of old customs and feelings…. With these views, however, we must announce to our future contributors under the above head, that their communications will be subjected to a careful sifting—both as regards value, authenticity, and novelty; and that they will save both themselves and us much unnecessary trouble if they will refrain from offering any facts and speculations which at once need recording and deserve it.”
Thoms may have regretted the fact that he wrote his letter to The Athenaeum under a pseudonym, for a year later, in another letter to the same journal, he disclosed his identity. He more than once reminded his readers that it was he who launched the word folklore. From time to time somebody would derive folklore from German or Danish. As long as he lived, Thoms kept refuting such unworthy rumors (he also suffered from the neglect of his Shakespeare scholarship); after his death others defended him. The word found acceptance both in the English speaking world and abroad. German, Austrian, and Swiss scholars eventually borrowed it with its original spelling (Folklore), though the German for folk is Volk. By the end of the eighties folklore had become an accepted term in Scandinavia, as well as in the Romance and Slavic speaking countries. The British Folklore Society, which was also formed largely thanks to Thoms’s efforts, adopted the title Folk-Lore Record for its journal (now it is called simply Folklore), and Thoms was elected the Society’s director. In the introduction to the first volume he noted, perhaps not without a touch of irony, that the word he had coined would make him better known than the rest of his professional activities.
As we have seen, the “Saxon” term folklore was applied to the vanishing “manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc.” Thoms did not realize how ambiguous his agenda was. For more than 150 years, researchers have been arguing over whether the subject of folklore is only “survivals” (does modern folklore exist?), who are the people, the “folk” to be approached, and whether folklore is the name of the treasures to be collected and described or of the science (“the lore”) devoted to them. Today folklore is often understood as a study of verbal art, but not less often it passes off as a branch of cultural anthropology. In 1846 folk meant “peasantry,” which excluded urban culture. One also spoke vaguely of common people, of story tellers nearly untouched by the advance of civilization, and of the working people in the “byeways of England” (the phrase, spelling and all, is from The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1885). Railways were the main bugaboo of those who watched the rural landscape disappear under the wheels of the devil, the steam engine. Being run over by a train became a literary motif.
In 1849 an event of great importance happened in Thoms’s life: he began publishing his own weekly that, after rejecting many titles and ignoring the advice of some well-wishers, he decided to call Notes and Queries. His old appeal to the readers to send ballads, tales, proverbs, descriptions of customs, and so forth brought many responses, and Thoms was loath to start a rival periodical, for fear of undermining The Athenaeum, but he received the editor’s blessing. The new journal turned into a main forum for letters that Thoms had invited correspondents to send to The Athenaeum. The rubric on “folk-lore” in both periodicals made the term familiar, and later the derivatives (folklorist and folkloric) emerged. Before resigning as editor, Thoms told the story of his magazine in a series of short essays and published them in Notes and Queries for 1871 and 1872. In 1848 Dombey and Son appeared. One of the novel’s most endearing characters is the one-armed Captain Cuttle. Like so many other personages brought to life by Dickens, the good captain has a tag: he likes to repeat the maxim “When found, make a note of.” Thoms used this catchphrase as a motto for his journal, and it was printed on the title page of each issue.
I have already written about the value and the worldwide success of Notes and Queries. This magazine is one of a kind. Personally, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to it, for suggestions on word origins were (and still are) common in Notes and Queries, and I have nearly 8000 of them in my database. Some words have been discussed only in its pages, and some first-rate specialists sought no better exposure of their ideas. The man who invented the word folklore and founded Notes and Queries deserves to be remembered, and I am sorry that no one has written a book about him. The reason may be that he was neither a professor nor a madman. Perfectly sane and of humble origin, he was survived by his wife and nine children.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them
as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction.
His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist
, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com
; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”
I shouldn’t be writing this.
I’m about four chapters (I think – I hope) from the end of a book that I actually began writing nearly two years ago. For various family reasons it then got put on hold for at least ten months – and I have nearly 26 different versions of the first four pages: I know, because I labelled them by the letters of the alphabet.
This is a long gestation, even for me. I’m not a writer who plans the book chapter by chapter, then does a first draft of the whole thing. I’m a writer who proceeds by a sort of instinctive groping, like someone following a path through thick mist. There’ll be landmarks on the way – things I come to with relief, because I’ve known from the beginning that they’ll be there. But how to get from one landmark to another – that’s a journey of discovery done step by step.
In my last book, ‘Troll Blood’, for example, I saw from the beginning that at some point the hero, Peer Ulfsson, would find a broken dragonhead from a wrecked longship, lying half submerged in a tide-pool. (This is a good example of a faun-with-an-umbrella: see my last posting!) But it wasn’t for months, when I finally came to write the scene, that I realised the dragonhead symbolised his dead father, and the dragonhead itself took on a spooky, malevolent life I’d never expected. These are things you find upon the way.
And the reason it took months to reach that point is that I write and rewrite every page over and over as I go. Till they feel perfect. This is frustrating for my editor, who has to take the book on trust – there’s never a point where she can ask to see an early draft – because there isn’t one. When I come to the last full stop on the final page, that’s when book is done, finished, complete at last. It’s an emotional moment, like when they finally hand you the baby you’ve been struggling to birth. I sometimes cry.
Fairy tales and folktales are full of stock phrases, repeated over and over with incantatory effect, not just, I think, to aid re-telling and memory but because like snatches of poetry they send a shiver down the spine and are recognised as emotional truth. Here’s one that’s works for me just now: in a Scottish folktale the hero has to travel ‘over seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors’ to accomplish his task. Here I am, several mountain moors still to go, but the seven bens and the seven glens are certainly behind me, and it no longer seems totally impossible that I shall, eventually, finish this book!
Howard Schwartz is a Professor of English at the University of Missouri- St. Louis, his book Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism won the National Jewish Book Award in 2005. In his most recent book, Leaves From The Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales, Schwartz has gathered fairy tales, folktales, supernatural tales and mystical tales- representing the full range of Jewish folklore, from the Talmud to the present. In the excerpted story below, chosen by Schwartz to help us celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we learn how a young boy’s talent can save the day.
Long ago, on the Spanish island of Majorca, a young boy spent most of each day at the shore, sketching the ships that sailed into the harbor. Solomon was a wonderful artist, everyone agreed. His drawings seemed so real that people wondered if the waves in his pictures were as wet as they seemed-or the sun as hot.
His father was a great rabbi who really preferred Solomon to spend his time studying, but Solomon would always slip away to the shore.
A few days before Rosh ha-Shanah, a ship arrived from the city of Barcelona. Solomon overheard one of the sailors talking to a local merchant.
“There’s news from Spain that will make every Jew on the island tremble.”
“What is it?” asked the merchant.
“The king and queen have decreed that all the Jews in the land must give up their religion and become Christian.”
“And if they refuse?”
“Then they must leave at once,” said the sailor.
“But what if they want to stay?”
“Then they lose their lives.”
Solomon was frightened. He didn’t want to leave his beautiful island. He ran home to tell the news to his father, Rabbi Simeon ben Tzemah Duran.
“Must we leave, Father?” asked Solomon.
“I cannot leave, my son,” said his father. “The other Jews look to me for guidance. I must stay until they all escape. But you should go, and I will join you later in Algiers.”
“I won’t leave you,” said Solomon. “You are all I have since Mother died. Surely God will protect us.”
Rabbi Simeon hugged his brave son. “Then let us work together and spread the word that everyone must meet in the synagogue.” They hurried through the village, knocking at the doors of every Jewish home and shop.
When everyone had gathered at the house of prayer, Rabbi Simeon told them about the terrible decree.
“Save us!” they cried out in fear.
They hoped their beloved rabbi would work a miracle. For they knew his prayers had once turned back a plague of locusts. Another time, when crops were withering in the fields, his prayers had brought rain.
“You have only three choices,” Rabbi Simeon told the men. “You can escape by sailing to Algiers. You can stay and pretend to convert, but secretly remain a Jew. Or you can defy the king and queen. As for me, I would rather go to my grave than say I am giving up my religion.” Solomon realized how strong his father was and how he strengthened and comforted his people.
In the days that followed, most of the Jews crowded onto ships, taking very little with them. They saw to it that the women and children took the first available ships. Some Jews stayed and pretended to convert, in order to save their lives. They were known as Conversos, but in secret they continued to follow their Jewish ways.
Only a handful of Jews openly refused to convert. Among them were Solomon’s father and Solomon himself. They planned to leave together, once they were certain that all those who wanted to escape had done so.
By then it was the start of Rosh ha-Shanah. Rabbi Simeon and Solomon and those few who dared enter the synagogue prayed with great intensity, in hope that their names would be written in the Book of Life. For on Rosh ha-Shanah that decision is said to be made on high. Surely God would hear their prayers and guard over them.
All went well the first day, but on the second day of Rosh ha-Shanah, just after the sounding of the shofar, soldiers rushed into the synagogue and dragged them all away. They were cast into a prison cell, where Rabbi Simeon continued to lead the prayers by heart. Solomon would have been terrified if he hadn’s seen how calm his father remained.
None of them slept that night. Even though Rosh ha-Shanah had ended, they stayed awake, praying. The cell was very dark, with only one high window. But at dawn it let a little sunlight in. When Rabbi Simeon saw it, he said, “Have faith, my brothers. For just as there is a bit of light, so there is hope, and I feel that God has heard our prayers and will protect us.”
The guard overheard them and laughed. “You think you have hope. You have just three days to live. Then you die. Let’s see what your God does for you then.”
Rabbi Simeon saw how frightened they were. So he turned to Solomon and said, “Won’t you help us pass the time? Why don’t you draw one of those ships you do so well?”
Solomon couldn’t believe his ears. His father was asking him to draw? Solomon felt in his pocket and pulled out his last piece of chalk. When he looked up, he though he saw a hint of a smle on his father’s face.
Solomon remembered all the ships he had watched from the shore, and he began to draw the one he thought was the most beautiful on the sunlit wall. The wind he drew filled the great sails, and he added barrels of wine and bushels of wheat.
Solomon’s father and the other men watched him draw until the sun set and the prison cell was enveloped in darkness. Then they began to pray to God to save them. Once again, they prayed all night.
The next day, Solomon continued to work on his drawing. Little by little he finished every detail of the ship, and then he drew the sea around it. The waves looked as if they might spill right off the wall and splash onto the floor.
The picture seemed finished, but Solomon didn’t want to stop. His father suggested that he draw the two of them, there on the deck. This Solomon did, and all the men marveled at the fine resemblances. Then the second day in prison ended, and again they prayed throughout the night.
When the sun rose on the third day, one of the men asked Solomon to draw him on the ship, too. “For I would like to be with you.” And one by one, the others made the same request. But when darkness fell, Solomon had not yet finished drawing the last man.
That night they prayed to God with all their hearts, for they knew the execution was set for sunrise the next day. All of the men shook with fear, except for Rabbi Simeon. Solomon took strength from his father, and he, too, remained unafraid.
As soon as the first light of dawn came through the window, Solomon took out his chalk and quickly finished drawing the last man.
Just as he drew the final line, he heard keys jangling. The soldiers were coming to unlock the door to their cell. Then Solomon and all the men would be taken to the courtyard for their execution.
Solomon turned to his father and saw that he was deep in prayer. And, at that very moment, he heard his father pronounce God’s secret name out loud.
Suddenly Solomon could not hear the guards in the hallway, and when he looked down, he saw that he was standing on the deck of the beautiful ship he had drawn on the prison wall.
His father and all the other men in the picture were with him, safely aboard a real ship floating on a real sea. The sails strained against the wind, just as they had in Solomon’s drawing, and the ship sped away from danger.
All the Jews from the prison rejoiced with Solomon and his father- for they knew they were aboard a ship of miracles, on their way to freedom. They would never forget that Rosh ha-Shanah when God had seen fit to save them.
-The Balkans: oral tradition.