Mind your language


1 October 2016

9:00 AM

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

Home is where the heart is, but some poor languages have no word for ‘home’. For them, home is where the hearth is. The Spaniards have a proverb (of course) on the matter: El sol es hogar de los pobres, ‘The sun is hearth and home for the poor’, since they can afford no other fire than the winter sun. My columnar neighbour, Peter Jones, touches on this hearth in his wonderfully entertaining new book, Quid Pro Quo, What the Romans Really Gave the English Language. I found it fun to turn from one entry to a connecting entry and read it like a game of hare and hounds.

For the Romans, notes Dr Jones, the household deity (lar familiaris) was worshipped at the religious centre for the family, the hearth, its focus. That word focus is exactly the one the Spanish proverb uses, hogar, except that, by the iron laws of philology, the f has turned into an h, and the c into a g. The French took from Latin focus their own word foyer.

A Greek word for ‘burn’ aithein comes from the same root as the Latin aedes, ‘room, temple’. Though Dr Jones does not say so, since he’s writing about Latin, our word ash (the burnt stuff, not the tree) comes from the same Indo-European root. We’re all in the same house, as it were. My husband eagerly tells me that the Latin name for Christ Church, Oxford is Aedes Christi, sometimes called the House in English. Peter Jones follows the Latin aedifico, ‘build’ to edifice in English, and its moral cousin, edify.

A Roman official, the aedilis, ‘houseman’, was the magistrate in charge of repairing streets. He also organised games for Roman holidays. Such a festus (‘feast’, or ‘festival’) is connected etymologically with fanum, ‘shrine’.

The English word fane, ‘temple’, is used by Thomson in his Seasons a few lines before ethereal, another word related to the Greek aithein, ‘burn’, since the fiery element of ether filled the upper heavens. It is not, however, to be confused with fane ‘weathercock’, a Germanic word we usually spell in its southern English variant, vane. The Romans gave us a lot, but not every word.

The post Ash appeared first on The Spectator.

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