False etymology March 15, 2008Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
The trouble with growing up in an intellectual desert is that people were always telling you you were brilliant because you knew the capital of Botswana when really you weren’t. And then, at some point, when you have vaguely begun to learn to think, you realise what a total dilettante you are, and that intelligence isn’t measured in Gaborones. Being taught to think would have been where it’s at.
Anyway, isn’t dilettantism fab? I mean, I wouldn’t recommend it to people who know their onions. But it can give you some lovely epiphanies, being this dim. You know, like discovering the world is round (aged 27), that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist (aged 31), that civilisation doesn’t end at Brighton (aged 37).
Awful the lies adults tell you. “It’s a very good school, BiB,” they said. “You’re very lucky to be going there, BiB,” they said. And of course at the time the word of adult, especially if a stranger, was the word of god and I thought I was going to be the cleverest person in the world.
What a load of bollocks that turned out to be. A vaguely competent exam-machine. I submitted to institutionalisation well enough. Lumbered my way through. Got to the end. Was informed that my grade C ‘O’ Level in RE meant I was in the top 0.01% of the country for brain-power and if I didn’t appreciate it I could just jolly well go and join the school down the road which allowed in two unspeakable specimens: girls AND non-Catholics. Who knew which was worse!
Did leave there, actually. Struggled through ‘A’ Levels. Struggled through degree. Felt proud for a moment at having letters after my name and then had the crushing realisation that I was still as thick as two short planks when some smart-arse asked me, “Aah, yes, but what’s Botswana’s chief export?” Crushing.
Anyway. What were we on about? Oh yes, so education. Got the papers, the certificates, but still pig-thick. But there was, even in my stultifyingly horizon-straitening education one glimmer of enjoyment, one ray of vague unmediocrity, one morsel of enthusiasm. For languages. Nothing else. Maths could be satisfactorily concrete and finite. Instantaneous gratification. But then it got difficult. Geography was pants (and I already knew where Botswana was). Science a mystery. History fun enough when you got a time or place that tickled your fancy. But language was my thing.
My school was posh, or so it thought, so we did posh languages. All that Latin and Greek. Modern languages, bar French, which was genteel enough to pass muster, were left to girls and non-Catholics. Latin and Greek for us. If it wasn’t Flavia in the atrium, it was the slaves releasing the horses, or the table both praising and blaming, or the priestess making a sacrifice on the altar.
And it’s a language-love that’s stuck, and an enthusiasm that’s stuck and, even though it was there before school had coaxed it out of me, I suppose I have school to thank for developing my knowledge. But then they had to go and spoil it by saying, “BiB, knowing that Greek verb, you are ACTUALLY the cleverest person in England. No, you are actually the cleverest person in the whole world.” Imagine! Because of horses and priestesses. And I believed them, fool that I was. Until I got out of the Catholic ghetto and met some grown-ups and understood what a dimmy I really was.
Anyway, that’s fine. Dimness is all right. Translation suits the dim.
So I had a little dimness, dilettante epiphany. Perhaps based on false etymology. Almost sure to be. By having this dilettantish education, and very wishy-washy knowledge on any subject I have knowledge on at all, I don’t know my arse from my elbow. So I was translating away and the word “orthogonal” came up. Of course my dilettantish and untoned brain didn’t even make the connection. I didn’t dig my Greek ‘O’ Level out of some cerebral cranny and divide the word down into its component bits. No, just went to some online dic and was told, so that I could have a belated oh-yeah moment, that it meant right-angled. Of course! Ortho-words. Tonnes of those. Orthodox. Orthopaedic. Orthographic. And, der, -gon. Hexagon. Octagon. No end of -gon.
Then, accuse me of being morose if you will, I was overcome with an insatiable urge to give false etymology to a word based on this new knowledge. It might even be right, but I bet it isn’t, and I’ve so told myself that the word means what I want it to mean that I can’t bear for it to mean what I don’t want it to mean. So, going on a- equalling non-, as in arrhythmia or amoral, please someone tell me that agony’s original meaning is not having any angles. Wouldn’t that be lovelily gloomy? That extreme suffering was brought about by non-angularity. That the pain you experience as you shuffle off this mortal coil could have been avoided if only you hadn’t had such a straightforward life. “You know your problem,” we could shout at miserable people, “not enough angles in your life. Not enough pointy bits. All too smooth. Too straightforward.”
Problems, people, are good for you.