Tuesday

Sep. 23, 2008

Hardware

by Ronald Wallace

My father always knew the secret
name of everything—
stove bolt and wing nut,
set screw and rasp, ratchet
wrench, band saw, and ball—
peen hammer. He was my
tour guide and translator
through that foreign country
with its short-tempered natives
in their crewcuts and tattoos,
who suffered my incompetence
with gruffness and disgust.
Pay attention, he would say,
and you'll learn a thing or two.

Now it's forty years later,
and I'm packing up his tools
(If you know the proper
names of things you're never
at a loss)
tongue-tied, incompetent,
my hands and heart full
of doohickeys and widgets,
whatchamacallits, thingamabobs.

"Hardware" by Ronald Wallace from Time's Fancy. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

This week, we continue to celebrate the anniversary of the Norman invasion of 1066. It was this week in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy first arrived on British soil. The French-speaking Normans eventually defeated Old English-speaking Saxons at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 — which had a larger and more pronounced effect on the development of the English language than any other event in history. Within the course of a few centuries, English went from being a strictly Germanic language to one infused with a large Latinate vocabulary, which came via French.

Words from the Anglo-Norman legal system form the primary basis for the vocabulary of our modern legal system. A defendant is summoned to court, from the Old French cort, from the Latin word for yard. If it's a civil affair, one might hope that all people "present at court" (the original meaning of courtier) will be courteous, which originally meant "having manners fit for a royal court."

A complaint is filed by the plaintiff, from the Old French word plaintive — a "lamentation" — which is itself derived from a Latin word, planctus, meaning "beating of the breast."

During the course of a trial, both sides usually introduce evidence, from Old French meaning "obvious to the eye or mind." It's a word composed of the French prefix e ("out" as in evict) and videre "to see." Evidence is laid out for everyone to see.

Perhaps the defendant is in fact a felon, from the Old French word felon, which meant "wicked" or "a wicked person."

During a court hearing and in other legal matters, attorneys advocate and provide advocacy, words that came into Middle English from Old French, from a verb that meant "to call to one's aid." The voc root is also part of words like vocabulary, vocalize, vocation, vociferous, voice, vouch, voucher, vowel, equivocate, evocatory, provoke, and revoke.

A verdict could be made by a group of peers, a jury, from the Old French juree, an oath or inquiry.

Or perhaps the judge will enter a judgment in the final stages of the judicial process and justice will have been served. These are words that came into English through French, and all revolve around the Latin root jus — "law" and also "right." It's also the root for judicious and judiciary.

It's the day we traditionally celebrate as the birthday of the tragic Greek poet Euripides, (books by this author) who was born in 480 B.C.

He said, "When good men die their goodness does not perish, / But lives though they are gone. As for the bad, / All that was theirs dies and is buried with them."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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