The Creative Exploration of Language

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (and the Dao)

I recently noticed that words related to the passing on of knowledge tend to be built on a base consisting of the consonant combination r-d.   The thought occurred to me when I came across the archaic English word rede, which means “counsel” or “advice”.  I immediately made the connection to the German word reden, which means “to talk”.  Reden is used much like its English counterpart, to refer to a substantive communication, often where advice or counsel is given.  Think of the implication in a sentence like “We’ll talk when I get home.” 

The other place that rede survives in modern English is in the poorly understood name of the 9th century Anglo-Saxon monarch of Wessex, Æthelred the Unready.  His nickname does not mean “ill prepared” but rather “unadvised” or “lacking counsel” and is a play on words given that his actual name means “noble counsel.”  

Following my usual process, I started thinking about other words built on the r-d model (and adjacent sounds like t and th) that related to communicating knowledge and made an amusing discovery related to the formulation “reading, writing and arithmetic.”  At first glance this is simply an alliterative phrase tying together three skills one learns in school that, apparently randomly, share similar sounds. 

But the similarities between these words are not the result of randomness; the connection between the consonant combination r-d and the idea of knowledge and this goes back to Proto-Indo European (PIE).  The PIE root of both reading and writing is *red, meaning “to scratch or cut,” which brings to mind ancient forms of writing such as carving symbols into wood and bone, as with runic inscriptions.  Arithmetic is a bit more complicated, as it comes to English from Greek, but the r-d (or in this case, r-th) base is clearly there, though some sources, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, trace it back to the PIE root *re(i).

At this point I found myself in a familiar place.  I had uncovered an interesting and revealing PIE root and made connections to a complex of words that carried a concept forward from the darkness of the past.  

But something bothered me.  There is another cluster of words built around r-d, those coming from the PIE root *reidh from which we get ride, raid, road, ready, etc.  This other cluster, and indeed the letter r itself, clearly relates to the concept of motion. 

At first, I felt that these two different connotations, knowledge and motion, were discordant until the phrase “to read fluently” popped into my head and it all came together.  The concept of “fluency” is one of motion and the knowledge-related words coming from the r-d root relate to the passing on of that knowledge.  In other words, knowledge moves.  From a different angle, a common way to refer to an intelligent person is to say they are “quick” or “quick witted.”  Clearly, the concepts of knowledge and motion are intimately entwined.

This then, led me to Alan Watts’ explanation of the Dao as “a sort of rhythmic intelligence” (What is Tao?, page 37) which posits movement as being an intrinsic part of knowledge.  Put differently, knowledge exists in order to be communicated, to be passed on and to flow back and forth between people, cultures and eras.  

Toward the Future

I’ve been wondering about the word future for a while.  In other Germanic languages it tends to be made up of two parts, the first meaning something like “to” or “forward” and the second meaning “to come” in the Continental languages or “time” in Scandinavia.  Here are some examples:

  • zukunft (German)
  • toekomst (Dutch)
  • toekoms (Afrikaans
  • framtida (Swedish)
  • fremtid (Danish)
  • framtid (Norwegian)
  • framtíð (Icelandic)

Initially, I assumed that this was simply a case of English using a French loan word where its Germanic cousins had retained the native word.  This view was perhaps strengthened by my knowledge of the word futuro in Spanish.

I let the matter rest there for a few weeks until one day I recalled that there is another way to say future in Spanish, porvenir, which follows the Germanic model and can be read literally as “for to come”.  After a bit of research I discovered that the same situation exists in French, which has both futur and avenir.

This rekindled my interest in future and I began digging into its etymology.  I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as straightforward as I had expected.  It came into English through French, which got it from Latin.  It seems to have begun as an irregular form of the word esse, which means “to be” and can be seen in words such as essence and its derivatives.

Before the adoption of future, English had a native word for the concept, toweard, which follows the Germanic model and has some interesting connections.  The second element of the word, –weard, comes from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *wert, which means “to turn.”  Both the word and meaning survive in a functional way in modern English as the suffix –ward in words such as forward and backward.    So, in Old English the future was something that one turned into.

However, -weard has a far more interesting set of connections that radiate out from its PIE root.  In English, this is best exemplified by the word wyrd, which is generally translated as “fate” and is cognate with the Old Norse word urdr.  This allows a poetic reading of toweard as something like “turning into fate” which I find appealing.

The other connection that jumps out at me is the German word werden, which means “to become” and is used as an auxiliary verb to form the future tense.  For example, in German, “We are eating” is “Wir essen” while “We will eat” is “Wir werden essen.”

As regular readers will know, I love to keep digging and make these kinds of connections that allow me to consider the different angles and shades of meaning of a word.  However, this “archeological” approach sometimes leads me to miss the forest for the trees.

In this case, it was only at the end of my investigations that I realized the word toweard had, in fact, never left English at all.  It survives, very recognizably, as toward, shorn of its larger meaning and reduced to the status of a preposition.


Nightmare is a half understood word in the sense that the first half is clear, but the second half is not.  What is a mare in this context and what does it have to do with waking up in the middle of the night with your heart pounding?  As it turns out, both halves of the word are interesting and both have remarkably deep and consistent Indo-European roots.

Night is derived from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) word *nekwt, meaning “night”.  This word is remarkably stable across languages and follows a patter of n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant, generally fricative:

  • nacht (German)
  • nox (Latin)
  • naktam (Sanskrit)
  • natt (Swedish)
  • naktis (Lithuanian)

It is also seems to me to be connected to two other words, next and near.  As is often the case, this connection is a bit clearer in German where the words are nächste and nahe, respectively.  Other German words that fit this pattern are nach, which means “to” or “towards” and nachbar, which means “neighbor” in the literal sense of a “near dweller”.

The common thread linking all of these words that follow the form n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant seems to be the idea of proximity or closeness, which fits nicely with the constrictive nature of night and darkness in general.

Now for the second part of the word, mare.  This comes from the Old English word mare, meaning an evil spirit or an incubus.  This word also has deep and consistent Indo-European roots, with the word being mahr in German and mara, marra or mare in the Scandinavian languages.  While there are a couple of competing theories regarding which PIE root mare comes from, the leading contender is *mer, which means “to harm” or “to rub” with the connotation of “chafing”, “rubbing away” or “wearing out”.

Putting the word back together we get to something that seems to indicate an evil spirit in close proximity to the sufferer and putting them under duress with constant, wearying pressure.  Not a bad way to describe something that haunts your sleep and terrifies you while you are unconscious.

In the end, I’m left with thought that the original idea as to the cause of nightmares, a literal demon perched atop you while you sleep, pressing on you, wearing you down in the darkness, is nothing more than a poetic way to describe a phenomenon that would today be described in more prosaic terms using scientific psychological language related to things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I don’t think most people understand any better than they understand the term “demon”.

It seems to me that people in both eras attempted to define and describe something complex and poorly understood with terms that were appropriate to their times and cultures.  Ultimately, though, they are both using metaphors and, as usual, the older ones seem more vibrant and compelling.



Thrice Greatest: Maha, Machen, Magnus

I have recently rekindled my interest in Buddhism and have subsequently been doing a lot of reading on the subject.  More specifically, I am reading some of the Mahayana sutras, starting with the Diamond Sutra, and I had a realization that brought me both pleasure and some amount of frustration: the Sanskrit word maha, the first element in Mahayana, means “great” and I had never realized this before.

Given that Mahayana is one of the two main branches of Buddhism, I had encountered the word numerous times and had a clear understanding of its meaning: “Greater Vehicle”.  However, I never stopped to break it down and assign English meanings to the parts of the Sanskrit word.  I treated the word as a symbol where the combination of those particular letters, in that particular order, simply equaled the meaning “Greater Vehicle” in some sort of creatio ex nihilo process that did not bear examination.

But when I did break the word down into maha + yana, I saw connections immediately.  The first word that came to mind was maharaja, which means “great king”.  I then began, as I tend to do when thinking about a word, to look for substitution patterns that might help me to transpose the word into other languages within the same language family.

I knew from prior research that consonants that sound “softer” in Sanskrit tend to sound “harder” in European languages so I focused on the “h” in the middle of maha and turned it into two phonetically related “hard” sounds of “k” and “g” and came up with some cognates immediately.

I first tried the m-k root and (focusing on sound) came up with the German words Macht and machen, which mean “power” and “to make or do” respectively.   This makes sense in that maha doesn’t seem to mean “great” in the sense of “large”, but rather in terms of power.  In other words, something is great because it can do things.

Using the m-g root, the the first word that came to mind was megin, the Old Norse word for “power” or “strength”.  My mind then jumped to the Greek word mega, which means “great”.  In the modern world, this is a word that all English speakers understand intuitively, from Megabucks to Megalopolis to Megabus.  For those with a more esoteric bent, one need only think of Aleister Crowley describing himself as “To Mega Therion,” or “The Great Beast.”

At this point, other associations started popping up, such as the Latin word magnus, which also means “great.”  From this we get the reasonably common Scandinavian boy’s name Magnus, which was an element in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor Karl Magnus, better known by the French version of his name, Charlemagne.  Again, he was given this name because of his deeds in uniting large parts of western Europe under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, not for his physical size.

Finally, given my interest in ancient, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, I hit on the legendary Greco-Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest” Hermes.  Here again, greatness is a byproduct of power, of the ability to do things.  In the case of Hermes, there is no general agreement among scholars as to why he was called “thrice greatest”, but competing theories include his mastery of the three areas of magical wisdom in the ancient world, alchemy, astrology and theurgy, and the three most exalted roles in society, those of philosopher, priest and king.

In most ways, this is a tidy and satisfying conclusion to my investigation of maha, and I am once again left with an admiration for the beauty and clarity of Sanskrit.  Every time I encounter transliterated Sanskrit I am pleasantly surprised at how much intuitive sense it makes in relation to other Indo-European languages.  However, I am also left with a lingering sense of frustration that it is so difficult to learn because it uses Devangari script.  Much like Greek, Persian and Russian, the unfamiliar script is a formidable barrier and Sanskrit may remain a bit of a mystery to me, just on the other side of the veil.



Lord and Lady

One of the things that I find most interesting about analyzing the roots, and therefore, the original meanings of English words is the way in which they tend to change from the functional to the symbolic.  What I mean by this is that English has changed so much over its lifespan that modern English words derived from Old English tend to have undergone contraction and simplification that obscures their original, literal meanings.  These original meanings often tend to be functional and additive in nature, while the modern meanings, divorced from their roots, have no literal meaning and tend to map directly to archetypal images in our brains that, while slightly different for each person, are consistent in their broad outlines.

Lord and Lady are a good example of this.  When I hear the word lord, an image pops into my head of a man who is wealthy, powerful and benevolent.  It makes sense that lord became a synonym for the Christian God in English.  While lady has a few different connotations depending on context, when I hear it connected to lord, as in the formulation “Lord and Lady X,” I think of a similar character: wealthy, refined and charitable.   In both cases, however, there is apparently no substrata to the word; a lord is simply a lord and a lady is simply a lady and everyone understands what those words mean without thinking any more deeply about it.

However, a lord was originally a hlafweard in Old English.  This is a compound word that breaks down into two parts:

hlaf– loaf

weard– keeper or guardian (cognate with modern English warden)

So, lord originally meant something like “loaf warden”.  Things brings a bit of a different image to mind, doesn’t it?  Personally, I see a sort of paranoid medieval petty official, guarding the king’s food supplies against raiders and unruly peasants.

Lady follows a similar pattern.  In Old English the word was hlæfdige, which is a compound form of:

hlaf– loaf

dæge– kneader

So, lady originally meant something like “loaf maker,” bringing it into a tidy, if traditional, relationship to lord.

What I find fascinating here is that, due to the evolution of English over the past ~1,500 years, these original meanings, in all their charming functionality, have been lost and replaced with what I consider to be archetypal symbols.  I don’t know to what extent this happens in other languages.  As I have noted elsewhere, German seems to retain the literal meanings of its words much more clearly than English, which is something I appreciate about the language.  However, I don’t know to what extent German speakers are aware of those meanings on a daily basis as they use the language.




This one has been staring me in the face for a long time, but I didn’t see it.  Regulate is a very common word meaning to control or impose order on something by setting limits.  In other words, to lay down rules and impose punishments or disincentives for breaking them.

What eventually caught my eye about this word is its obvious connection to various Indo-European words related to the concept of kingship.  The root of regulate is reg-, which literally means “a straight line” or “to direct in a straight line;” in other words to rule.  There are numerous cognates of reg- that mean “king” in Indo-European tongues:

  • Rey (Spanish)
  • Raja (Sanskrit)
  • Rex (Latin)
  • (Irish)
  • Re (Italian)

This list is notable in that it is limited to the Celtic, Romance and Indian branches of the tree.  Being a native English speaker, I wondered why we say king and what that says about the differing concepts of kingship within the Indo-European language family.

King, and its relatives in the Germanic language family (König in German, koning in Dutch, kung in Swedish, konungur in Icelandic, etc.) stem from a different Indo-European root altogether, gen-, which means “to give birth.”  This meaning is clear in modern English words such as generate and engender, but there are cognates in numerous Indo-European languages which denote more than the simple fact of being born, but also membership in a tribal or ethnic group:

  • Gente (Spanish)
  • Jánas (Sanskrit)
  • Genus (Latin)
  • Cine (Irish)
  • Genus (Italian)
  • Génos (Greek)

The Indo-European root gen- came into English as kin, meaning “family.”  King is the result of a compound Old English word, cyning, which combines the noun cyn (equivalent to modern English kin), and the suffix -ing.  In this usage, the suffix denotes belonging to or being descended from the noun it follows, a pattern often seen in family and tribal names in the ancient Germanic world (think of the Scyldings from Beowulf).  So cyning literally means something like “member/descendent of the family/tribe.”

Based on the above, it is clear that the Celtic, Romance and Indian words for king are all formed from a root (reg-) that emphasizes the legalistic exercise of executive power, while the root used by the Germanic languages (gen-) emphasizes membership in a group that defines itself through shared descent.

This difference seems to have its origin in the differing political systems found in the cultures themselves.  Ancient Romans, for instance, viewed themselves as being citizens of a state that imposed laws and exacted punishment for breaking them, whereas Germanic tribesmen viewed themselves as being just that; members of a tribe.  Even though the political situation on the ground has changed over time, the ancient distinction between the etymologies of the words remain, much like the silent “gh” in the word “night”.




Announcing: Don’t Care None

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of my first book, Don’t Care None: A Collection of Uncle Oscar Stories.


The book grew out of a chance encounter with a treasured childhood memory.  I was in a store in a coastal resort town in Maine one summer day and saw a book of Bert and I stories by Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan for sale.  These stories, particularly in audio form, were a big part of my youth and represent, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Maine storytelling and Down East humor.  Over the years, I lost track of my copies of the old stories and no longer had the tapes I used to listen to (or a tape player for that matter).  I hadn’t thought about Bert and I for years and was delighted to come across these stories again.  So, I made an impulse purchase and walked out of the store with the book and promptly devoured it.

I came away from this experience with two observations.  First, that the Bert and I stories were funny and, at times, profound.  The second observation was that I could see perspectives and currents of thought in the work of Dodge and Bryan that echoed ideas found in a wide variety of sources which I had encountered over the years, from the Mulla Nasrudin stories of the Islamic Sufi Idries Shah, to the traditional tales of the Mad Monk Ji Gong in Chinese literature, various Buddhist teaching stories I picked up from Alan Watts and other sources.

My hope is that Don’t Care None can be enjoyed on the same two levels on which it was written: by losing oneself in the time and place, in the cultural milieu in which it is set, but also by appreciating the larger philosophy that animates Uncle Oscar’s perspective.

As always, thanks for reading,

S.R. Hardy



Örlog has long been one of my favorite words from Old Norse.  It has that bolted-together quality that I love about compound words in the Germanic language family, but it also has an air of mystery about it.  In my opinion, it just looks interesting, even if you don’t know what it means.

But I am interested in meanings and, as it turns out, örlog means fate.  However, the relationship between the words is not direct as it so often is across languages (consider dependent, an English word derived from French and Latin roots, and its German equivalent abhängig, which is constructed in exactly the same manner: de- and ab- both mean “from”, while –pendent and –hängig both mean “hang”).  This implies that the concept of fate was different in Northern Europe as compared to the Classical world centered around the Mediterranean.

Fate ultimately comes from the Latin word fari (“to speak”) via its derivative fatum, which means “that which has been spoken”.  This fits very well with the Classical conception of fate as something has already been determined.  For example, the Fates in both Greek (the Moirai) and Roman (the Parcae) mythology are composed of three goddesses who represent the weaving, measuring and ending / cutting of the “thread” of individual human lives.  The metaphor here is that the Fates have determined what is to happen and made an irrevocable decision in relation to how it should happen.

In Norse mythology there are also three Fates, but they are called the Norns and are connected to the passage of time: Urð (past), Verðandi (present) and Skuld (future).  This metaphor seems different to me: the Norns don’t determine what is to happen or how it should happen, they simply describe how the world works.

A breakdown of Örlog supports this interpretation of the Norse conception of fate.  It is composed of two separate words:

ör– this means “primal” and is cognate with the modern prefix ur- which is found in modern German and, to a lesser extent, English.

log– this means “law” (final “g” in Old Norse tends to turn to “w” in English, as in the Old Norse word útlag, which means outlaw in English).

So, örlog is a “primal law”.  Rather than fate being seen as something that has been determined, the product of a process, as in the Classical conception, the Old Norse word implies that the ancient Scandinavians saw fate a force that drove a continuous process which can be summed up as: life.

In other words, to the Norse, the world just works the way it works and events aren’t foreordained, but rather continuously created according to unalterable laws.



The question of whether there is an etymological connection between the words “new” and “nine” at the Indo-European level has been debated for the better part of a century based on the similarity between the words in a number of European languages and their seemingly common connection to the root for the word “now”.  For example, the new/nine/now complex is neu/neun/nun in German, ny/nio/nu in Swedish, and novus/novem/nunc in Latin, etc.

The existing debate (a short, if technical, summary can be found here) has tended to focus on the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European roots of the words.  This debate is both interesting and valid, but is, in my opinion, incomplete because it fails to take into account the symbolic associations of the words.  I believe that an analysis of these associations as found in mythological contexts and an understanding of how these associations derive from phenomena observable in the natural world supports the idea that they are fundamentally connected.

In a variety of cultures (at least ones with Indo-European languages), the number nine represents wholeness and completeness.  This can be seen in the nine-fold conception of the universe found in Norse and Hindu mythologies (the “nine worlds” and the navagraha or “nine houses, respectively), or the fact that Odin hung on the world tree Yggdrasil for nine nights before acquiring the runes.  Alwyn and Brinley Rees devote a short section (pp. 192-196, part of Chapter 9) of their excellent Celtic Heritage to the prominence of the number nine in Celtic culture.  One of the connections they mention is that the ancient Celts are believed by some to have had a nine day week, which lends credence to the number being associated with a complete cycle.

But why is the number nine traditionally associated with completeness?  I know there is a long tradition in numerology related to the number nine and I don’t discount this out of hand.  To give just three examples: nine is the minimum number needed to construct a magic square; many significant numbers related to the proportions of the earth and the solar system add to nine; and nine is the product of 3 (a number that is considered special in many cultures) multiplied by itself.

However, I think there is an obvious, common sense explanation that may help to explain the origins of the association of the number nine with the concept of “new”: the period of human gestation is nine months, after which, a new life is born.  Viewed from this perspective, when Odin hangs on Yggdrasil for nine “nights”, he is essentially in a period of incubation, at the end of which he is “born” in possession of new, secret knowledge in the form of the runes.  When the fulfillment of nine is reached, something new is born, and what is new is that which is happening now.


Ertu Hagr? New Essay in Eternal Haunted Summer

I had an essay published today in the Winter Solstice issue of Eternal Haunted Summer called “Ertu Hagr?  The Gilded Sow and Esoteric Symbolism in Hreiðar’s Tale” which breaks down the surprising layers of meaning at play in Hreiðar’s Tale.  The phrase translates as “Are you skillful?” and is asked of the titular character, Hreiðar, by King Magnus the Good.  The essay unpacks the different levels of meaning in the question and the resulting answer.

You can read the essay here and my translation of Hreiðar’s Tale here.

Thanks for reading,

S.R. Hardy