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Monthly gleanings for May 2021: yesterday, tomorrow, and time concepts

A few private letters and comments on my post “The Future in the Past” (17 March 2021) allow me to return to it. To begin with, I of course know The Beatles’ song about YESTERDAY (it would have been hard to grow up when I did and not to be exposed to their repertoire). Other than that, I cannot refrain from quoting Rainer Maria Rilke’s line: “Vergangenheit steht noch bevor (“The past is still ahead of us”).

It is amazing how pregnant poets’ observations sometimes are! Rilke hardly knew anything about the world view of the ancient Babylonians. Yet those would have found Rilke’s statement trivial. As far as one can judge, the Sumerians and Babylonians saw the future behind and the past in front of them. Perhaps they thought so because the past was synonymous with good, reliable, proper, and sacral things. This conclusion, which I found in the book Imagines Mundi (Moscow 2013, p. 127: A. V. Podosinov, with reference to I. S. Klochkov, p. 127), will sound familiar to those who have read my April gleanings, because the Old Testament view of time was roughly the same.

Podosinov drew the expected conclusion that the entire Near East shared similar concepts of time. Very much in harmony with the view of the past and the future as it is presented in Old Russian chronicles (which I mentioned in the post), he reproduced an illustration from Klochkov’s book: the diagonal time line shows the movement up (!) from our descendants to our ancestors.

Every historical description depends on the attitude of the narrator, and ancient narrators lived at an epoch in which they looked on themselves as part of the picture they drew. Chroniclers and biographers of the past began their description with the most ancient events. The end became the beginning of the tale, and the view of what was close and what was remote was reversed. Today, when historians have pried themselves from the picture they draw, this reversal is no longer possible. A good deal of Klochkov and Hebrew scholars’ conclusions depends on the etymological analysis of the words for “in front of,” “behind,” and some others. History and etymology are inseparable. Welcome to the past, good, reliable, and sacral. It stares us in the eyes.

Forward to the past! (Image by Heidi Fin via Unsplash.)

And a last insight from Russia. One of the most profound writers of the second half of the twentieth century was Fridrikh Gorenshteyn (1932-2002; a Russian Jew, who emigrated to Germany). In his novel The Psalm, he suggests that the idea of space gave birth to philosophy and science, while the idea of time engendered religion and art. Some food for thought.


Now back to mundane topics. Some time ago, I posted an essay on the origin of the idiom mad as a hatter (24 January 2018). It seems that somewhere I also mentioned mad as a March hare. Ever since, I have meant to write a few lines about the adjective harebrained. It is (or was?) common to look down on animals and despise them for their stupidity. Donkeys (asses), geese, and many other sagacious “critters” have been stigmatized by overbearing humans. Are hares brainless? A curious exchange went on about the word harebrained in the periodical Notes and Queries in the first half of 1880. The doubts and replies are predictable but still worthy of resuscitating. The discussion began with the statement that the word owes its origin to the idiom as mad as a march hare. But are hares “madder” than other wild animals? Probably not. Could the original adjective be air-brained, with an h dropped in Cockney speech? This was not a good guess, for what is air-brained? Some correspondents looked down on hares with genuine contempt: “She is unstable of purpose; a straw turns her, a hair turns her again, a third time she may turn at nothing. Hunted, her course is a series of dodges and cranks.” I am not a sportsman, but dodges and cranks seem to be exactly what the doomed partner in the game of hare and hounds should do.

It was also noted that the hare had been the butt of denigrating idioms since at least the days of Ancient Greece. Proverbial sayings tend to be international, and one never knows whether some simile like the English one was coined on native soil in the sixteenth century or adapted from a foreign literary source.

If we disregard some fanciful suggestions (hare from hurry, from harry, etc.), the main question that puzzled people was: hare-brained or hair-brained? But first let me mention the little-known fact that in an English translation of Apophthegmes of Erasmus, we read: “March-hare is marsh-hare.” This is a product of folk etymology. Here is another statement from that discussion: “There was formerly a vague notion that abundance of hair denoted a lack of brains, and from this idea arose a proverb, ‘Bush natural, more hair than wit’.” Proverbs on the theme “long hair, short wit” are indeed common. Much to the credit of our old lexicographers, they did not fall into any of those traps, spelled the word correctly and let the proverbial hare remain intact. To celebrate the animal, we posted a field of harebells as the header to this post. Whether hares are particularly fond of harebells is a moot question.

A perilous game for the hare. (Image by Thomas Rowlandson via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

 A wicked Anglo-French parallel

I mislaid this letter and apologize to our correspondent for not answering it several months ago. In English, we have wick and wicked, and in French, mèche “wick” and mèchant “wicked.” Is this coincidence fortuitous? Yes. Mèche appeared as a hybrid of two words: popular Latin micca “wick” and muccus “mucus, snot.” Classical Latin myxa “wick” was a borrowing from Greek and coexisted with mūcus “mucus.” The meanings “snot” and “wick” are not incompatible: think of a guttering candle. Mèchant, as is clear from the suffix –ant, is an old present participle that consisted of the prefix with negative semantics mes– (as in mesalliance) and a verb meaning “to fall.” English wick is an ancient word of unclear origin, even though its cognates exist in Dutch (wiecke) and German (Wieche). The root of wicked is wicca “wizard” (witch has the same root). The surprising parallelism is, as I said, fortuitous.


A wick is not wicked. (Image by BBC Creative via Unsplash.)

Last week, I mentioned the word stooge. Its origin is unknown and may remain such for all eternity, but the noun appears to be sound-symbolic. No native word rhymes with it (and in general, nothing except for –fuge, as in subterfuge, and huge provides a rhyme). Yet Dickens called his famous killjoy and miser Scrooge. Of course, we hear the root screw in the name. But is it possible that in the nineteenth century, –ooge was a pseudo-suffix used in slang to denigrate people? If so, then half of the etymology will be discovered. Perhaps somebody will respond.

We split, split, split

“Lynx are about the size of bobcats, with big feet that act like snowshoes allowing them to easily walk over deep snowdrifts” (= to walk easily). “The… vote sent the one-week bill to the Senate, where it’s expected to easily pass before a deadline of…” (= to pass easily). Lynx and bills tend to pass easily, rather than to easily pass. “He hopes to still continue his work (= still hopes). “He and the other two crew members were declared missing and presumed dead, only to later be rescued from… (only to be rescued later/ only later to be rescued). Isn’t there a vaccine to rescue us from this virus?

A final note

On 24 March 2021, I posted the first of three essays on trash, rubbish, and garbage. Several day ago, I was delighted to read a newspaper article with the heading “Critics say E…’s plan for park trash is garbage.” Whether the plan will be trashed remain unknown.

Please write letters and leave comments!

Feature image by Chris Gunns via Geograph (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Kristofer Coffman

    Thank you again for the fascinating tidbits! The note on “mad as a hare” caused me to reflect on your earlier posts on animals and made me wonder: how is it that “bunny” is the diminutive for “rabbit”? And what is the relationship between our bunnies, rabbits, coneys and hares?

  2. max mackay-james

    Dear Anatoy,
    Would you like to add something about time future and the ‘Aftermath’. I was reading https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/eros-after-covid..
    “..a simple predicate: I will have lived through Covid and will make up my life in its aftermath”
    Where might you go from here?
    Best Wishes

  3. Constantinos Ragazas


    “stooge. Its origin is unknown and may remain such for all eternity,”

    It may surprise you to know (and reject as usual) there is a Greek word, “στουρνος”, very similar in sound and meaning to the English “stooge”! Now used more often in Greek slang.

    Slang may provide a means by which very old word usage survives in the present! Especially words used by ordinary people with little regards to accuracy and exactness.

  4. Michael Bresler

    It is interesting that the quintessential clever Trickster in African-American folklore, Brer Rabbit (in Gullah, Buh Rabbit), is anything but “harebrained.” Perhaps “Mad as a March hare” was a result of a misconception that hares have a particular breeding season (i.e. spring). That might produce seemingly crazed behavior in March. In fact, they breed all the time; they brred like rabbits..

  5. Stephen Goranson

    My knowledge of ooge-ology is meager but I’ll note an 1840 poem on google books, The Honeymoon, by John Fisher (London), which refers to “that old smooge-faced limping artisan,” smooge having earlier and later appearances according to OED.
    And, though you didn’t ask for personal family names, e.g., Martin Luther D’Ooge, born in 1840 in Zealand, Netherlands, and eventually prof of Greek at U Michigan.

  6. Fred de Vries

    “The Future in the Past”: I sometimes use the phrase: “He has a great future behind him” to signify someone who hasn’t made use of all his abilities and possibilities.

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