Monday, April 9, 2012

Gene (and Bheu)

(This is the seventh in a series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each day’s post centers on a topic connected to the next letter of the alphabet from the day before. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

Back in the mid 70’s Lewis Thomas, a cancer researcher associated with the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and before that with Yale University, where he was Dean of the Yale Medical School, came out with a little book of essays called The Lives of the Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, which went on, against all expectations, to win in 1975 two National Book Awards, one in “Arts and Letters” and one in “Sciences.” I had been unfortunate in the luck of the draw as far as my science teachers went in high school and college, and I was taken by surprise by the playfulness and naturalness of Thomas’s thinking and writing, not to mention its breadth. In The Lives of a Cell, and later in The Medusa and the Snail, Thomas gave himself permission to speculate not just about biology but about reading and writing and technology and death and about language itself. In “Notes on Punctuation,” an essay which I have shared with my own students for many years now, Thomas writes, “The things I like best in T.S Eliot’s poetry, especially in the Four Quartets, are the semicolons.” That sentence rocked my 25-year-old mind. A scientist owning up to reading poetry? A scientist who of all that he has read of Eliot declares that he likes the semicolons best?? A scientist with a sense of humor? I hadn’t met any of those, on paper or in real life. I was startled. I was charmed. I was interested. I continued to read, and my notions of what science was all about began to change, as did my notions about what a good writer might aspire to do, or give himself permission to do, in an “essay.”

So this morning when I was thinking about what to choose for my “G” word of the day, I had a vague recollection of some interesting stuff that Lewis Thomas had gotten into in his essay “On Various Words.” Something to do with the derivations of words that had to do with the word “gene” and its many cognates. (Lewis loves words and loves tracking down their derivations; it is largely due to his example that to this day I spend more time in the back of the American Heritage Dictionary looking through Appendix I: Indo-European Roots, than I do looking at the definitions in the front.) So I went to my office and pulled down my well-thumbed edition of The Lives of a Cell. Here is the relevant passage:

There are two immense words from Indo-European, gene and bheu… from which we have constructed the notion of everything. At the beginning, or as far back as they are traceable, they meant something like being. Gene signified beginning, giving birth, while bheu indicated existence and growth. Gene turned itself successively into kundjaz (Germanic) and gecynd (Old English), meaning kin or kind. Kind was at first a family connection, later an elevated social rank, and finally came to rest meaning kindly or gentle. Meanwhile, a branch of gene became the Latin gens which emerged as genus, genius, genital, and generous; then still holding on to its inner significance it became "nature" (out of gnasci).

While gene was evolving into "nature" and "kind" bheu was moving through similar transformations. One branch became bowan in Germanic and bua in Old Norse, meaning to live and dwell, and then the English word "build." It moved into Greek, as phuein, meaning to bring forth and make grow; then as phusis, which was another word for nature. Phusis became the source of physic which at first meant natural science and later was the word for medicine. Still later, physic became physics.

Both words, at today's stage of their evolution, can be taken together to mean, literally, everything in the universe. You do not come by words like this easily; they cannot just be made up from scratch. They need long lives before they can signify. "Everything," C. S. Lewis observed in a discussion of the words, "is a subject on which there is not much to be said." The words themselves must show the internal marks of long use; they must contain their own inner conversation.

These days it is reassuring to know that nature and physics, in their present meanings, have been interconnected in our minds, by a sort of hunch, for all these years. The other words clinging to them are a puzzlement, but nice to see. If you let your mind relax, all the words will flow into each other in an amiable sort of nonsense. “Kind” means a relation, but it also means “nature.” The word for kind is the same as the word for gentle. Even “physics,” save us, is a kind of nature, by its nature, and is, simultaneously, another kind of kind. There are ancient ideas reverberating though this structure, very old hunches.

What I most like about Thomas (beyond his semicolons, which are certainly admirable in themselves) is the fluidity and playfulness of his thinking, the way he exemplifies what can happen “if you let your mind relax.” He knows how to pay attention. He knows how to get a line of thought going. He knows how to ask questions. He knows that even science is not always a science. He models for his readers how being a good learner can make you a better teacher.

Special Bonus: In yesterday’s post I made a strategic decision not to go down the road leading to the F-word. Thomas, in his essay “Living Language,” goes for it, in the context of making an characteristically Thomasonian argument for why science “is a field in which the irresponsible amateur can have a continually mystifying sort of fun.”

Whenever you get the available answer to a straight question like, say, where does the most famous and worst of the four-letter Anglo-Saxon unprintable words [recall: this was 1974] come from, the answer raises new and discomfiting questions. Take that particular word. It comes from peig, a crawling, wicked Indo-European word meaning evil and hostile, the sure makings of a curse. It becomes poikos, then gefaihaz in German and gefah in Old English, signifying “foe.” It turned from poik-yos into faigyaz in Germanic, and faege in Old English, meaning fated to die, leading to “fey.” It went from fehida in Old English to become “feud,” and fokken in Old Dutch. Somehow, from thse beginnings, it transformed itself into one of the most powerful English expletives, meaning something like “Die before your time!” The unspeakable malevolence of the messages is now buried deep inside the word, and out on the surface it presents itself simply as an obscenity.
So now you know.

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