September 2015

What's In A Word?

What do these three statements have in common?

“The swarm of bees, the second thrown off the hive that season, moved swiftly to the player bent over the football.”
“The throw of the fishing line arced directly into mid-stream.”
“The actors ran across the middle of the stage.”

The above sentences, in context, could all be expressed:

“The cast coursed the center.” If this simple combination of cast, course, and center is not enough of an indication of the wide variety of meanings which can be attached to a single word, then consider these sentences.

“The center centers from the center.”
“The cast cast the cast.”
“The course courses the course.”

They perhaps make more sense as
“The player in the middle of the line hikes the football,”
“The performers in the play threw down the plaster model,” and
“The pursued rabbit swiftly runs the dog track.”

These dictionary definitions cast new light on the complexity of word usage. Of course, I expected the dictionaries to offer multiple definitions, but I was cast off course when I opened the
Oxford English Dictionary and found seven-and-one-half pages of triple-columned definitions for “cast.” “Course” proved to be a little more manageable at only four pages of triple columns, and I selected “center” as the third word, primarily because it appears in the same volume as cast and I thereby had one less book to pull off the library shelf.

The root word in each example -- cast, course, center -- has seen its core meaning amplified, extended and abstracted. The etymological meaning for cast is “throw.”
The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology dates the verb to before 1200 AD and the noun for “a throw” to 1250 AD. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology states cast superseded the Old English “weorpan” in the sense of throw. Perhaps, “to throw” is such a basic action, going back to pre-human, pre-historic times, that it may modify the adage, “actions speak louder than words,” into “primal actions create primal words.”

The etymological beginnings for “course” are also basic human action: to run, to hunt, to cause to run. Neither dictionary of etymology specified whether the verb or noun form appeared first.

“Center” is linked to a more specific noun classification as the point made by a compass as it inscribes a circle. It seems its verb form then comes from the action of placing, resting, or fixing on the center.

All these root words provide excellent examples of how new meanings, new words, and new idiomatic phrases are created over the course of time. (This blog will run its course casting a variety of uses of the three words at its center until the non-wordy geeks will want to “cast up their accounts” ((to vomit,
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang))).

Cast, as “throw,” frequently incorporates the thrown object into the acquired meaning of the single word. The bee definition referenced earlier is “the second swarm of bees thrown off by a hive in one season” (OED). Furthermore, physical acts such as throwing a fishing line become figurative ones such as throwing a glance -- “cast an eye.” The creative process generates new metaphors that become understood as literal uses in their own right.

In the course of casting about for other examples, I see not only conversion but compounding as a creative process with these three words. Castaway, newscast, broadcast, centerstage, centerfield, centerfold (a personal favorite), coursework, and courseless are dictionary entries. Each of the three has cast (birthed) other parts of speech. It was fascinating to see the parallel existence of noun definition and verb definition for such varied meanings as dog hunts, falcon lures, and other noun acts and verb actions. These primary verb and noun definitions create adjectives and adverbs: “central,” “centrally,” “coursing,” the adverbial phrase “of course,” “castable,” “cast-off,” and simply “cast” as an adjective -- the cast die, the cast stone.

The phrases generated by these three words are just as varied. “In due course,” “par for the course,” “stay the course” are listed as idioms in
The Longman Dictionary of English Idioms. One phrase draws upon course as time, another as playing field, and the third as a charted direction. “Cast the first stone,” “cast a veil over,” and “cast of thousands” have become idioms using throw, draw, and performers as base meanings respectively. “Dead center,” “front and center,” and “center of attraction” are phrases which have expanded their original meanings to become “a point where nothing happens,” “a place of maximum prominence,” and “the main drawing card of a place or event” rather than a physicist’s term for the center of gravity.

What can be said in summation? Dictionaries cannot be cast in stone. Words are not cast in concrete. In due course, words evolve, beget new words, and label new discoveries and phenomena. The center of this ongoing process is the mental lexicon. Dictionaries, as wonderful and valuable as they are, can only chart the course of words to date. The human mind and its faculty for language and the human experience -- relations with others and the world at large -- cast the ultimate form of our lexicon, a lexicon which is as vibrant and alive as our species itself.

To Be Or Not To Be ... An English Major


As summer ends and students return to the classroom, many college undergrads will be making decisions as to their major. I've been thinking of how tough the choices are when one is asked what will you do rather than what will you be.

In my home state of North Carolina, education budgets are being slashed, and the legislators are questioning the value of any degree in the liberal arts. If it can't get you a job, why learn it? If you can't specifically do something with it, why waste taxpayer dollars on something as frivolous as engendering a student's curiosity and sharpening critical thinking?

To do or not to do? That is Hamlet's new question. The universe of the university appears to be collapsing to prescribed dimensions of job-training. And to some degree, those degrees devalue or even usurp the broader, universal learning that has always steered us into the future. I haven't seen curiosity and critical thinking flourishing on standardized tests for standardized students for the standardized jobs of today.

My dear student, the real story is what do you want to learn in order to become the person you want to become. "BECOME." The word means "to come to be." And so we are back to Hamlet, "To be or not to be" … an English major. Because what is more important than being able to understand each other's stories? Stories that are at the heart of literature, a field there to be mined by the English major.

To study storytelling, in any language, is to study the core of what it means to be human. Aristotle got it right over 2400 years ago when in
The Poetics he wrote that stories are how we learn because they mimic human behavior and stories are pleasurable to hear and tell. Other animals might have language – chimpanzees, dolphins, whales – but do they tell stories? Not that we know. Stories are part of our DNA, whether narrative paintings on cave walls or an e-book you might download after reading this blog. We are the storytellers of the world and to understand ourselves we must understand our stories.

Why become an English major? Because the power of story is there for you to discover. A better understanding of humanity. What could be more important? What could be more important than for you to understand the story you are living? The story you will become.

To be or not to be … an English major. Consider the question.