Etymological Serpents

Snakes get a bad rap.  There are biological, evolutionary reasons people tend to fear them (some are dangerous and the way they move is literally creepy), but snakes are a necessary part of our ecosystem and very successful reptilian forms.  Nevertheless they get associated with evil.  The other day I was consulting a book of Christian symbolism.  This was actually a book I’ve had since my childhood.  My eye fell upon the entry for serpent and the book gave the etymology as from Latin for “sin.”  I’d never heard this before and as I thought about it, “serpent” has the same ending as “repent,” so I wondered if the terms might indeed be related.  That most authoritative of lexicons, the Oxford English Dictionary, soon set me straight.  The etymology of serpent is from Latin (at least partially) but not for the word “sin” but from the word “creeping.”

Given what serpents do, that name origin makes sense.  The idea of sin being attached to snakes is a biblical one.  The Garden of Eden oh so long ago, and a serpent wrapped around a fruit tree.  That story has become one of the most influential in western culture, played and endlessly replayed with some combination of apple, woman, and serpent.  Genesis, of course, doesn’t specify the tree as an apple tree.  That association seems to come again from the Latin.  The word “apple” is malum, which may also be used for evil.  In Latin they have different vowel lengths and only become homophones in the languages of non-native speakers.  The serpent, on the scene at the primordial fruit tree, becomes associated with sin because of this story, not by its etymology.

The biblical view of snakes is not a positive one.  By the time of Revelation the serpent is associated with Satan.  It’s also called a dragon, which, as modern fantasy aficionados can tell you, is quite a different thing.  The dragon becomes associated with evil because of the Good Book also.  The reptile order generally doesn’t fare too well in the biblical world.  There do seem to be Sumerian prototypes for the story of the snake and the tree.  It’s not completely original with Genesis.  Still, you’d like to think that if someone is going to write a book about symbols they might take extra care with the etymologies.  People tend to fear snakes.  It’s hardwired into our primate biology.  That’s no reason to make them the bad guys, though.  All you need is a good dictionary to clear things up.


Secret Life of Language

I recently met with a friend to catch up on several years of silence. Increasingly I’m discovering the wisdom of those I’m privileged to know—perhaps it is the shedding of a purely academic way of learning. We all share in this very human voyage of discovery. This particular friend presented me with an idea that I just can’t dismiss: what if language is a living entity, existing in its own world but intersecting with ours? In a symbiotic relationship, we use words and they help us to survive and advance. This friend is a writer, and like all of us who attempt the art, knows the joys and frustrations of dealing with words that can elude but also fall subtly into place forming a poem or story of sublime beauty. We haven’t fully tamed language, but it defines us. Even my feeble attempt to replicate his fascinating idea is fraught with difficulty, for language won’t be relegated to the page, whether of paper or of electrons.

Language evolves along with us, helping us to express concepts that defy explanation. I recently read of the disappearance of three of our alphabetic letters in English. Alphabets, beginning with the earliest complete exemplar in Ugaritic, contain roughly thirty members that may be combined to replicate, in facsimile, the sounds we make. Different cultures use differing sounds; letters that represent those sounds require symbolic representation. Not all alphabets are created equally. One of English’s missing letters is “ampersand.” I always wondered why when I learned the alphabet the song ended with “W, X, Y and Z”—why the “and”? “Ampersand” was part of the alphabet in the early 1800s. Students sang “X, Y, Z, and per se and.” “And per se (‘by itself’) and” eventually ran together into “ampersand.” Over time it fell out of our rank of letters. As the runic Anglo-Saxon that gave us English was absorbed into Latin characters, the Teutonic “thorn,” or th sound, went extinct in our alphabet as well. As any student of German knows, “th” has distinct pronunciations in Germanic languages. It has its own letter of the alphabet in both Arabic and Greek. Since the Latin “y” resembled “thorn” the letter was replaced by ye olde “y.” The archaic letter “wynn” looks like a flattened “p” but was pronounced as “w.” As Latin superseded runic forms “wynn” was written as a doubled “u,” literally “double-u,” which, in Latin was scripted with a “v” shape. This gives us the anomalous W written with what looks like two “v”s.

The alphabet, second to writing itself, is perhaps the most important invention that humans have devised. The alphabet made writing much easier to learn and with writing ideas could be preserved for centuries and could be sent vast distances without changing. Writing allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants. As the school year is beginning again and kids everywhere feel the strain of losing the freedom of summer, I think back to the purpose of education—teaching our young to read, write, and calculate. Language has been guiding us all along. It may evolve, shed a letter or two, frequently grow by taking on entire new words, but it still cradles us as we struggle to find the perfect expression. We should take a little time to get to know our own language better, for without it we are merely biological entities.

An Ugaritic abecedary