Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tripping the Light Fantastic

I hope you have read my overview for this blog. What I am doing here is showing the connection modern words have in their ancient Indo-European roots. It fascinates me and hopefully my readers from Sydney to San Francisco. Imagine you were one of those old-timey Indo-Europeans, likely residents of Mesopotamia about the time and place of the Bible’s Tower of Babel. What would be the first words you’d articulate. My guess is the words I’d speak would be about food, family, and common elements of the word around me. It turns out that some of the largest groups of words in language today do indeed flow out of those kinds of core ideas. A while back I blogged about the IE root aus – to shine. Today, I’m going to refer to a different root, bha1, which also means “to shine”. Apparently shiny, shining things were quite important in ancient times – as they are now.

Before I jump into the modern words, let me remind you that writing came along long after speech. “Bha” may look like it should be pronounced “bah” as in bah humbug? But turn that b upside down, you have p – pha, pronounced “fa”. Consonants often do gymnastics like that over time. All the words we're considering today have that f/ph sound.

Now, imagine you are in a dark or dimly lit room. All is quiet until suddenly there is something moving not too far away. You can’t make out the form, but there is light shifting, dappling such that you suppose another “thing” is there near you. After you stop quivering and hyperventilating, you call for help. “What is it?” “I don’t know. I don’t think it was a person, it was like a phantom.” That’s just what it means, a shining thing that lacks description otherwise. Closely related is the word fantasy – something visible (if only to the mind’s eye), but lacking substance. Isn’t it interesting that fantastic also comes from this root, but now is an adjective describing something in a very positive way?

One of my favorite words, epiphany, is also related. It means “to show” or to become visible and is used in reference to the discovery of Jesus by the magi. It can also mean something like coming to a new awareness - "a moment of epiphany". What do we say, “that’s when the light bulb came on.” A light shining – how apropos.

Bha1 also gives me another favorite word – diaphanous. Dia- means "through". Add that to light or shine and you basically have idea see-through and is often used to describe fabric. When a wife is hoping for her husband to give her some snuggly, warm flannel pajamas for Christmas to keep her warm in the winter, how surprised she is to discover a skimpy, diaphanous little sumpin-sumpin.  And so it goes when people come from two different planets.

In doing my research for this post, I discovered that Tiffany derives from this same root word. In the 1500s and 1600s, Tiffany was a term used to describe diaphanous fabric. Interestingly, in Medieval Europe, the given name Tiffany was often bestowed on girls born on Epiphany Day (usually about January 4, my birthday). This name is special to me because my first daughter-in-love is named Tiffany. Her beauty and sincerity definitely shine through in her character!

Theophany is yet another related word. It means something like “God-appearing” and is commonly used to note instances the Bible’s Old Testament where God (or better, the pre-incarnate Christ) appears to people (as in Genesis 18 or Daniel 3).

Next post we’ll look at several more modern words that come from this ancient root.