Gina took us to France in 2017.
Last weekend was the 7th Etymology conference.
The word <convent> has seven letters. It’s related to the word <coven>.
And the seventh letter of the English alphabet?
That would be <g>.
As in <ghost>.
Let me take you on an adventure.
The moment I walked into that big old house I knew it was haunted. I extra knew it was haunted when I tried to turn on my bedside lamp at 2 a.m. after traveling all day and blew the fuse for all the lights on our floor.
Gina and I went down into the basement in complete darkness to find the breaker. We were lowkey terrified but strong, independent women who get shit done are used to navigating terror. The key is to put your fear aside and go down into the scary haunted basement anyway.
Feel free to use that as a metaphor because it totally is.
The etymology of <ghost> is beautiful. Our present day form comes from the Old English gast which meant, “breath; good or bad spirit, angel, demon; person, man, human being.” If you go to Douglas, which you really should because he’s brilliant, he will tell you that in Christian writing done in Old English the word ghost was used in place of the Latin spiritus. You can still see an echo of that in the construction Holy Ghost. The <a> in the Old English form gast makes complete sense to me now, probably because I just spent three days studying things like how a long <a> in an Old English form generally yields a long <o> in a Middle English form.
The <h> in our PDE <ghost> was slowly breathed in by humans who were busy hustling print. Their native Flemish gheest still haunts our spelling in the same way that several ghosts are still playing pool in the billiards room of the Dayton Masonic Center. Sometimes there’s not a clear reason why things stick around.
They just do.
That first night, after the scary trip down to the extremely creepy basement, I was almost asleep when I felt a distinct pressure on my forearm. I was wide-awake in seconds. It’s okay it’s okay you are safe you are safe you are safe I thought to myself. I lay there in the darkness reminding myself ghosts can scare you but they can’t hurt you and waited for sleep to drag me back under. I was just slipping into the dream world again when I heard and felt a long, deep sigh. It sounded wistful, like an exhausted person remembering the feeling of falling sleep.
I woke up thinking about my dreams, which were dark and scattered and full of ghosts, bits and pieces of my consciousness scattered around my brain like driftwood flung up on a beach. Of course the word <ghost> came up during the weekend, mostly because there are no coincidences but also because it’s such a rich word to study. I’d looked at the entry for <ghost> before but every time I circle back I notice different things.
That’s how scholarship works folks. You notice what you are ready to notice.
Learning does not go in a straight line. Learning cycles. Put that word on a cyclamen and study it my fellow word nerds. You won’t be disappointed.
It wasn’t until the morning after a ghost sighed in my ear that I realized the Latin spiritus and the Old English gast share a meaningful connection to breath. The words are distinct but they both carry an inherent, historical sense of breath. After all breath is the thing that animates, that governs the moment of transition between the realms of the living and the dead.
It made me think about breath as an echo of life and ghosts as an echo of lives lived.
Maybe ghosts are just a collection of complicated exhales, extra inspiration that your soul can’t carry on and that your body is no longer able to sustain. A thing left over, like the old battered doors and broken furniture and dusty boxes lying forgotten in a basement.
Just an echo, like the way footprints are echoes of steps.
The 7th card in Truer Words Volume 3 is fate.
That word comes to us from Old French by way of Latin. Of course it carried the sense of a person’s destiny, literally what had been spoken by the Gods, but it also had the sense of “one’s guiding spirit.” Like your fairy Godmother, the force responsible for making sure you don’t make a mess of the threads connecting you to this life. The women who are responsible for weaving you into a tidy existence before snipping you back into the spirit world.
The last day of Etymology we looked at Douglas’s entry for “text.” It was another entry I’ve looked at multiple times—it’s one of the words on the bonsai in Truer Words Volume 2—but somehow I had no memory of the quote Douglas offers in his entry.
An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns—but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth.
Robert Bringhurst, “The Elements of Typographic Style” via Etymonline
Our individual threads are only so long but human life gives us the opportunity to weave them into text. The fates may govern our expiration but study affords us the opportunity to make something meaningful together while we are still breathing.
When you understand the deeper connections and broader patterns in our written language you secure an invitation out of the house of disembodied sounds. The house of disembodied sounds is a ghost house. The shiny packages of phonics are like bodies made up by funeral directors: they may pass for the living on the outside but they are dead as doornails on the inside. Those bodies are designed to reassure you that death isn’t messy.
Don’t kid yourself honey it’s just as messy as birth.
Don’t deny your own humanity because you feel more comfortable with carefully designed packaging. Put the body of your loved one on the dining room table. Study it. Understand soon it will be your body. Care for others like it is your last act of service because it might be.
Teach children the truth.
Get rid of all those boxes of lie binders down in your dark basement. Listen to the ghosts sigh but know they have no real earthly power. Put down your suitcases full of heavy lies. Life is light and breath and connection, not phonograms and nonsense words. Those things are dead. Real study is alive and full of friends.
You are the architect of your own life. What is it you want to weave? And how long are you going to wait before you start?