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Monday, 4 November 2013

All about earth

Our word 'earth' is from a Germanic root (and here I will use the þ symbol for the 'thorn', the soft 'th') erþa in Old Teutonic and airþa in Gothic, while the Swedes and the Danes have jord, and the Dutch have aarde (to make hard work of it, the aardvark of the Boers is a dirt-pig, or maybe an earth-pork), and in German, the ground is die Erde.

Soil is the tribal patch of ants. Don't knock it!
The Anglo-Saxons used eorþ and had some delightful combinations: the cucumber was an eorþ-æppel or earth-apple (and nothing like a pomme de terre!), a person who was injured and crept on the earth as an earth-creeper was an eorþ-crypel (compare this with our cruel label,  'cripple'), and an earthquake was what we would now call an earth-din (eorþ-dyne) or an earth-shaking (eorþ-beofung), while the things that lived on the earth were eorþ-cyn, or earthkind.

But even in those days, 'earth' also had the idea of element attached to it, as in this Old English phrase: "Seó eorþ is dryge and ceald and ðæt wæter wæt and ceald" — the earth is dry and cold, the water is wet and cold (compare 'Séo' and the German 'sie').

There seem to be about six ideas used in different languages that relate to "earth": in English they are represented by dirt (as in 'dirty'), soil, land, earth, world and planet. In Latin, the main terms are terra, humus and solum, with humus being what we are buried in, according to the student song, Gaudeamus igitur (which means let us rejoice, but seems usually to be sung as a dirge), rather than our more restricted use of the word. I wonder what Latin word was used for earth in the sense of one of the four elements?

Ant lions live in the earth, too. Look out, ants!
At different times, many of these have been used interchangeably. John of Gaunt is made to speak of "This blessed plot, this earth, this Realme, this England" in Richard II, but England is Angleterre to the French, and our Great South Land is Terra Australis.

(Whatever happens to the Great in the Latin version?)

Anyhow, terra which is the soil in the Italian terra rossa is now a land, as it is in Tierra del Fuego, though not yet promoted to the level of terrestrial, which can be either on dry land (terra firma) or something found on our planet, as opposed to extra-terrestrial.

We speak of a man on the land when we mean a farmer of the male persuasion, while those who live off the land are exploiters of the environment in all its forms.

It seems almost as if the word we use depends on our continually widening horizons over the past millennium or so. For example, the Icelandic jörð can mean earth, land or estate, depending on the context.

What began as the garden became the land we lived on, then the tribal patch, the land that the clan lived on, then perhaps a continent, and finally the world.

All the same, the world of the Romans (mundus) was far less than the world of the Italians or French (mondo or le monde). To the Romans, the world was just a small patch around the Mediterranean Sea (which is the sea 'in the middle of the world').

The need for a name for the area larger than one's normal reach and travels came with trade. The Swahili word for 'world' is dunia, and the same word is used in Indonesian.

This is not surprising, as it is an Arabic word, brought in by Arabic-speaking traders in each area, but I have minimal knowledge of Arabic, so I cannot say what precisely it means in Arabic.  All I know for sure is that the same word is also used in Turkish.

I note, in passing, that Frank Herbert apparently had some Arabic, and his planet of Dune was almost certainly cognate with dunia — he uses enough other Arabic-related terms in that novel.

So the short answer is that our word 'earth' is very old Germanic, but the interchange over time of the various words used to mean the stuff under our feet is a much longer story.

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