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The Nominalist Library
The Metafizzical Essays of
Nicholas Hancock

Published by The British Hancock Society
by arrangement with the author.


Copyright  ©  2008 Nicholas Hancock.  Permission  is granted  to  distribute  in  any  medium, commercial or non-commercial, provided author attribution and copyright notices remain intact.

‘I GOTTA USE WORDS. . .’


‘I GOTTA USE WORDS. . .’


For most of us words are simply tools of communication - no less, but certainly no more. We use them as push-buttons. As such they are by no means infallible; however, they must be pressed to achieve anything at all. In T.S. Eliot's words, ‘I gotta use words when I talk to you.’

     Where these words come from is surely the business of the historical linguist, not of the average beer-drinking Canadian. . .I mean, you wouldn't suggest such a mild inebriate, shouting above the hubbub at the crowded bars, ‘Labatt 50, Miss!’ would be the slightest bit interested in discovering that 'Miss’ was once 'magister’ or 'master’ among the Romans, and 'maha' or 'great' among ancient Indians .»

     All rather trivial, don't you think?  And yet. . .

     And yet the quest for triviality seems to be a basic human drive. Required: that I be in possession of information not worth passing on to anyone while you are not; consequence: self-fulfillment for me, annihilation for you.

     The popularity of the game of Trivial Pursuit would suggest that we need something to do while we drink the beer. My suggestion, however, is that with nothing less trite that the history of words we could do a great deal of annihilation.

     Take, for example, the word 'trivial'. In the Middle Ages, a university student took seven courses. The medieval freshman would start with the trivium - the threefold way of grammar, rhetoric and logic; the sophomore would later undertake the quadrivium, the four major subjects of mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music. Now students taking the quadrivium tended to look down on those still involved in the trivium, whose three courses became 'trivial' in comparison with their own.

     Or, if you don't want to take the word 'trivial', perhaps 'paltry’ might do. Originally meaning ‘rubbish’, someone decided around 1570 to use the word as an adjective; one can see the analogy with 'trashy' - all those trivial, paltry disposable lighters; cans barely filmed with a furred memory of last night’s beans; cold tea-sodden newspapers; the pair of underpants that finally had to be thrown away.

     On the other hand, 'piddling' and 'wee'1 show a kind of reverse euphemism: maybe one could call it cacophemism.
And then the flimsy excuse you used in the office this morning to explain your arrival at 10:30. . .Had you heard the hypothesis that 'flimsy’ started out in life as 'filmsy’? The fact that 'film’ itself derives from the Greek 'pelma' meaning 'sole of the foot’ surely indicates something itching to plant itself on the back of your flimsy pants when you presumed too much on the credulity of the secretary.

     All you need to search for these gems - all right: for this dross - is a finger strong enough to lift the page of a dictionary. But those of you who have exercised your fingers recently will have noticed that the history of a word seldom goes further back than Latin or ancient Greek, and never beyond Sanskrit. That is, in fact, as far back as linguists can go - our Sanskrit roots of a mere four thousand years ago. But what of the original proto-human grunt? What might our paleolithic - even our neolithic - ancestors have barked out into the rheumatic mists of their lake dwellings to express what we call 'trivial’? Of course we will never know. But the first humanoid to shrug hirsute shoulders may have been miming 'trivial’ for the benefit of the original neolithic weapon-chipper, as if to say: ‘All these pretty flints - what a trivial pursuit! Our paleolithic weapons took half the time and trouble. And was anyone ever short of mastodon?’

     If
homo sapiens has been going for about a million years, one obvious first question is: did man talk all that time, or did language develop gradually during this period? And if man's sapience began and depended on language, what are our dictionaries' four thousand years among one thousand thousand?

     The answer, of course: mere trivia.