Search This Blog

Saturday, 12 October 2013

A bit down

Looking down from one of Australia's smallest mountains, now
just called Comerford's hill to the Hunter River.  The story of this
downgraded mountain is, however, another story. I must remember
to write it down when I get some down-time.
No, not me, personally—I'm not down, never have been, never will be. It's just my metaphorical pen that's about to be down, because I have been going like a mad thing for the past two weeks.

My wife has been away, so I have been laying down large slabs of pre-prepared text for an extremely large history of science with a few excursions into technology. It started as part of the Not Your Usual series, but I don't think it will quite fit that mould.

More of that project later, but my pen will be down for a week as we take a bit of a break. I will probably be messing around the edges of the project, but we are going to be out and about, enjoying the good weather.

Now about down: this word came to us from the Celtic word dún, meaning a hill fort, also seen in the old name for Edinburgh, which is Dunedin, a name now preserved in an intensely Scots city in New Zealand, and Florida has a Dunedin as well.

The word 'dune', as in a sand dune, is also part of the same family, though it came into English in the 18th century from French, but the French got dune in this sense from the Dutch, who obtained it from the Celts.

Today, the word lives on in the lexicon of ecologists and also of those environmental despoilers who drive dune-buggies, which must surely have been invented in America, for English buggies have just two wheels, while American buggies have four wheels.

At the same time, the word lived on in its original form in Old English, where dún was an adjective meaning mountainous or hilly, so dún-land was hilly or mountainous country, while a mountainous road was a dún-stræt, a down-street, where down was used in the sense of the Downs in England, which, confusingly, are also called uplands.

In late Old English, the form dūne (meaning 'from the hill') was weakened to the form adūne, which appears in Marmion by Sir Walter Scott in the form 'His gorgeous collar hung adown'. Later, adūne was shortened to just dūn, and came to be spelt doun or down by the Norman clerks, who also wrote hūs as house.

Both forms were used in Chaucer's time, and in his version of Troilus and Cressida, we read:
Adoun the steyre anoon-right tho she wente
In-to the gardin, with hir neces three,
And up and doun ther made many a wente,
So how did the hill come to be a direction consistent with the force of gravity? Simple: adúne, in the sense of from above, became the now archaic term 'adown', meaning in a direction off the heights or the hill. Then came a process that James Murray, the creator of the Oxford English Dictionary called aphesis, a shortening by the loss of the first syllable.

The word 'squire' is merely an aphetized form of the older 'esquire'. If you prefer, 'squire' is an aphetic form of 'esquire', just as 'down' is an aphetism derived from 'adown', and 'escape' sometimes becomes 'scape'. We are still in the process of aphetizing 'around' to 'round', it seems, so the phrase 'he came and looked round' for 'he came and looked around' is still anathema to some.

Then there is 'down' as in the old Marx Brothers gag, "How do you get down off an elephant?" followed by "You don't get down off an elephant, you get down off a duck." This 'down' comes from the Old Norse dunn, just meaning down, as in the first feathers of a bird, while the adverbial 'down' in Old Norse is indicated by niður reminding us of the English word, 'nether' (or the Dutch neder, for that matter). In a similar vein, today's Norwegians have a delightful term, nedenunder, which means 'downstairs'.

In England, 'down' took on a new meaning in the 19th century, when all trains going away from London were 'down trains' (except to Dr Spooner, who may or may not have said "Sir, you have hissed all my mystery lectures, and must leave by the next town drain") and trains approaching London were seen as going up to London, so they were 'up trains'.

Aside from the adjectivally down trains, one can down a drink or an opponent, walk up the downs, or stroll down a hill. Surely only a few words in any language can ever play the role of adjective, noun, verb, and adverb? And if that isn't enough, the word can also be used in the refrains of songs, where it has no meaning at all.

Hey-down-down, ho-down-down . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment