Thursday, 7 February 2019

Coining a New Name

I am indebted in writing this piece to several friends (not all of whom are Friends) helping me puzzle out the nuances of a dead language. Special mention must go, however, to my sister-in-law, and to the helpful folks of the Latin Stack Exchange. I am no scholar of ancient languages myself, though I dabble (as I do in many things). Any errors in how I have made use of Latin are my own, and as I've had to be a little creative I expect there are some.
Image shows a small portion of a page of an old printed Latin-German dictionary. Latin words are in Roman script, while the German text is in Gothic script. Part of the entry for "Avis" is in focus.
Much conversation goes on among liberal Friends, at least recently in Britain, concerning our range of names for the Divine. This is why there's a tag for it on this blog, and has become a startling focus of conversation around our theological diversity. Some of the worry – and some of the excitement – about the upcoming revision of Britain Yearly Meeting's Book of Discipline even relates to this. Some of the differences in name reflect the different ways we have of thinking about the Divine, and sometimes using the same name conceals that difference.
We have the old names – God, the Father, Christ, and more esoteric terms early Friends were fond of, such as Seed. Then we have names that are old, but new to Quakers, as other faith traditions feed into our own, and they are too many and varied for it to be easy to pick out a few. We have names that reflect theological liberalism and universalism, delightfully non-committal like my own go-to name, the Divine. We have terms that were used by early Friends and are used today with different nuance, like Light (for early Friends it was often the Light of Christ, or Inward Light; today it is often Inner Light, and for both it would just be shortened to “Light”). Maybe it's time for something new. Something that reflects what we are united on, or at least as united as we ever are, without claiming anything else.
That's not an easy ask, mind you. What is that we are united on? Well, I think there's one thing, at least among unprogrammed Quakers. Whatever we think it is, we have our silent waiting. We gather together in Meeting for Worship, even if some struggle with the word worship, and wait on... something. Something we struggle to name. “That on which we wait” would be a reasonable name, but it's kind of unwieldy. How can we approach this to make it easier? Abbreviations are popular, I suppose, but I don't see TOWWW catching on, even if we could agree how to pronounce it.
Still, there's a pretty old tradition in European-derived societies, especially those related to western Europe, for what to do when you need a new word. When a series of small, star-like objects were discovered in the night sky, dimmer than the planets but moving in the same way they did, they needed a name. If you didn't notice that they were moving, you could mistake them for stars, so there were “star-like objects”, rendered into ancient Greek as ἀστεροειδής, which one might transliterate to asteroeidēs. Today, we call them asteroids. When a French chemist wanted to come up with a scientific term for heat, that could be properly (though as it turned out, incorrectly) defined and studied, he took the Latin term calor and applied the rules of his own language to it, and came up with calorique. This ended up in English as caloric, a long-since-debunked theory of how heat works, but survives today in calorimetry, and indeed calorie.
We can apply that tradition here. Yes, we will end up with an obscure word that no-one recognises, but then any word that anyone does recognise will have too much baggage of meaning attached to it. We arguably need a new term, and we may as well approach it in some logical manner rather than just putting random syllables together. So we might look for some word or words in some ancient and respected language that might express what we want to say. It might be better, in some ways, to pick something less eurocentric, but I actually know something about Latin, and a little less about Greek, so sticking with classical European languages is going to be more workable.
Latin, in particular, has a very attractive feature for our purposes. As a highly inflected language, a lot of things that we do with extra words in English are done just by changing a word in Latin. That even include a grammatical feature known as the gerundive. This is, unsurprisingly, related to the gerund, a form of inflection that we still (barely) have in English. The gerund is a way of turning a verb into a noun, representing the idea or the act of doing whatever that verb indicates. In English, this is with the -ing form, which also acts as the progressive participle. As a gerund, we can say “I like running”; running is a form of the verb to run, but it can be used like a noun. The gerundive is similar in that it allows a verb to be used as another part of speech, but instead of being a noun it acts as an adjective. Specifically, it creates a meaning that takes a lot of words in English, and a set of words in which we are particularly interested, given our current purpose. If we take the verb to eat, the gerundive would be rendered in English as something like “which is to be eaten”, implying that there is an expectation, requirement, or duty to eat them. It might even be “which must be eaten”. All that in one word. Very attractive. Of course, you still need a noun to attach it to… if you're actually using Latin. If we want to coin a term to use in English, using a bare Latin gerundive as a noun is hardly taking great liberties.
So, we have a path, a pattern we can fill. Now we just need the right verb, the Latin for to wait, or at least to wait for – perhaps better put as to await. After all, to form the gerundive it logically must be a transitive verb. Here we run into a perennial problem of translation, however – vocabulary doesn't map one-to-one. The native English speaker may look to translate something into French, and come to the adjective free. They will then discover that there are two common French words that could be translated into English as “free” - libre, and gratuit. These might be explained, indeed frequently are in some parts of the internet, as “free as in speech” and “free as in beer”; libre is free as in “without restraint”, while gratuit is free as in “without charge”. Going the other way, translating French into English, can be just as confusing. Translating prix the native French speaker will find two main English words that would be translated into French as prix: price and prize. The two are cognate, of course, but the meanings are quite distinct in English. There's an even greater difference translating the French verb gagner; it could be, in English, either to win, or to earn! In fact, it can even mean to obtain in general. I can't help wondering if the native French speaker sees less difference between the concepts of winning and earning than does the native English speaker. Perhaps I should ask my brother-in-law, him being a little of both.
French and English are actually pretty closely related languages. The connection between English and Latin is much more distant, even with the occasional new borrowing from the old language to the new one. If you look for a Latin verb to match and English one, you're likely to get several results. And most likely, all of them will actually also translate back to English as a couple of other verbs as well, possibly ones that you might not think are at all related to the one you started with. The real kicker is that these different translations aren't always different senses of the word. That word might only be one concept to the classical, native Latin speaker. It takes some work to try to figure out the nuance, and I sure as heck couldn't do it on my own, but with some help I found four (yes, four) words that might be something of what we're looking for. All of them connote some sense of waiting, with different nuance and different additional/concurrent meanings.
The one that I am told would be the most likely candidate for the general idea of the English verb to await is the Latin verb exspecto (also rendered in some sources expecto). This could be translate as to await, or as to expect. It seems to convey a sense that one is expecting something to happen, and is waiting for it to do so. Its own etymology is believed to be something along the lines of “look out for”, but without the connotation that phrase has in English. Our own verb to expect is a direct descendent of this word. There are downsides to this as a choice on which to base a new term to refer to the Divine. The most obvious is that it will be readily conflated with the English, and I think we wish to convey a somewhat different shade of meaning. There is also the slightly awkward matter that it may put one in mind of the pseudo-Latin of Harry Potter, though I think J K Rowling was actually thinking of a different verb when she came up with the incantation for the patronus charm; expectoro means to expel from the breast, and figuratively from the mind, being the root of the English expectorate, and makes much more sense as the basis of expecto patronum.
Friends may feel this choice is highly appropriate, given our traditional term “expectant waiting”, though I am not comfortable with that much-loved phrase. To me, to expect something is to have a clear belief that it will happen, or to imply that I have some right to compel it. This is not how I approach worship; I would rather say that we wait hopefully. That said, it is an obvious candidate, and taking the gerundive (and taking whatever-it-is as neuter gender, rather than masculine or feminine) we get exspectandum.
Another word that one comes across when looking for a Latin translation of to expect is opperior. References suggest that this does have less of a sense of expectation. However, this may be because we have far fewer attestations of this word as compared to exspecto – and it is still considered to have some sense of expectation. One person I consulted suggested it might be the best if I was seeking to have the sense of loitering. Some sense of expectation may be unavoidable, as we shall see, for it seems that the concepts of awaiting and expecting are far more entangled in Latin than they are in modern English.
Some may see no downside in choosing a word that is obscure even in its own language, but I consider that a negative. Still, if we decide that is what we should use, the gerundive is opperiendum.
One correspondent suggested that, if my aim were to capture a sense of hope instead of (or as well as) a sense of expectation, I might use spero. This carries the primary meaning, according to references, of to hope for, or to trust, and yet also to promise. It carries a secondary sense of waiting for that in which one trusts, or that which one hopes for, and yet while we might consider hope and expectation to be rather distinct concepts, it also indicates a yet weaker sense of expectation. It can also mean to fear, or to await with apprehension. It has a relatively obscure English descendent in the form of sperate, which as an adjective carries a sense similar to the Latin gerundive, meaning “hoped for”; we might refer, if we didn't mind confusing our audience, to “sperate exam results”. It also has a verb sense, in certain dialects and also now obscure, meaning to hope. It is not related to the modern English aspire, which rather derives from the Latin aspiro – to which it is very close in meaning.
Waiting is a very minor element of this word's meaning, compared to the others, yet still that sense of hope – and perhaps even the sense of fear – might be attractive for our purposes. Were we to choose to use it, the gerundive is sperandum.
The final candidate that arises from my investigations is maneo. The sense of this word most often referred to is that we might render as to stay, to remain, or even to remain still. Used transitively, however, it means to wait for, but maintaining that sense of stillness, of remaining in one place. It can also be used to indicate that sort of waiting, but waiting for something that is expected. It seems to be the case that Latin considers expectation an almost inextricable part of awaiting. It can even mean to last or outlast, or or to endure. Perhaps that is a descriptive range of meanings if we consider the range of subjective experience found in Meeting for Worship.
For me, this is one of the strongest contenders, though it does not compare with spero or exspecto for being well-attested in a range of classical sources. The gerundive is manendum.
So, then, there are four candidates here for a new term with which we might refer to that-on-which-we-wait: exspectandum, opperiendum, sperandum, and manendum. All have an element of waiting to their meaning, and all an element of expectation. One conveys both hope and dread, and another conveys stillness. One has the greatest sense of expectation, and the remaining one is frankly obscure, even for Latin. For me, I prefer manendum, but there isn't much to base it on.
I raise this idea only as a possibility, not to particularly advocate for it. Perhaps we can find better unity in language, even while still using all that we already use, by being creative. English has limitations here, particularly for native speakers, as we all have significant loaded meanings in our mind for every word we might choose. I choose Latin on the basis of some small knowledge of it myself, and of access to those with greater expertise, but I do not say it is the only language we might plunder in our search. Perhaps there are better things to be found in Sanksrit, or Chinese, or the Quechua languages. Perhaps we should reach for something even more obscure to the western mind, like Austronesian languages or the languages of Sub-Saharan Africa. I'd love to hear your ideas.
Ultimately, we could agree on any name that is free of baggage, if we wanted to do so. However, I don't think we're likely to all agree to call it Geoff.
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