The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: April 2012


I came across the word peregrination via the Spanish: peregrinación.  I encountered it while reading La biblioteca de Babel by Jorge Luis Borges.  Though I could not provide a concise definition when I first read the word, it was clear from the context that it meant some kind of journey, but two additional connotations sprang to mind.

First, the only other place I had encountered some form of the word peregrination, was in relation to the Peregrine Falcon.  The falcon, being a bird associated with royalty (think of falconing, etc.), has an air of nobility about it that in this case has rubbed off on the other word in the phrase.

Second, the multisyllabic nature of the word peregrination lends it a sense of complexity, of involvement, that turns the initial definition of a ‘journey’ into more of a ‘wandering’.  Indeed, the falcon species was given the designation peregrinus precisely because of its extraordinarily wide-ranging migratory flights.

In a modern setting, peregrination therefore seems to have taken on the sense of a ‘noble wandering’.  This illustrates the reflexive and magnetic properties of language, in which a word connoting a  journey or wandering trip is applied to an animal associated with the concept of nobility, and an echo of this nobility is reflected back onto the original word.


Bewildered, I realized recently, is a beautiful word.  Being a true English word, not a loan from French or Latin, it is constructed in the wonderfully logical Germanic manner that reminds me of the linguistic equivalent of a Lego model.

The prefix be-, as one might suspect, relates to the fundamental experience of being.  Its counterpart, wildered, is a beautiful word, based on the root ‘wild’, and connotes something that contains ‘wildness’ or ‘wilderness’ in its essence.  This essential aspect of the ‘wildness’ being referred to brings to mind something chaotic, uncontrollable and dangerous.

In this instance, conjoining the prefix be- to wildered gives the impression of being suddenly and jarringly thrown into a new state of being that is, if not existentially, at least mentally or spiritually dangerous.  Be- is the spark that ignites the gunpowder of wildered.

While there are many other excellent words that utilize this construction, such as besotted and benighted, considering its usefulness, the construction seems to be underused.  A number of potential new words come to mind that could be created from conjoining them with the prefix be-, from the lofty to the profane.


Cosmos doesn’t really mean what you think it means.  Or, put differently, its full meaning is hidden beneath the surface, like an iceberg, with only the topmost point visible.

The general understanding of cosmos is akin to “universe” or, perhaps, “the totality of all things in the universe.”  While this interpretation is not wrong as far as it goes, it refers only to the outward manifestation of cosmos, i.e., the simple fact of existence.  The deeper meaning of cosmos is only apparent when you look up the origin of the word and discover that it came to English from Greek, where it had the connotation of “order,” of something that is arranged, or even an “adornment.”  This explains why cosmos is at the root of cosmetics.

So, it seems clear that the original meaning of cosmos was not simply a collection of things in space, but an ordered system that had a fundamental logic underpinning it, an arrangement that resulted in beauty.  This understanding helps explain the Early Modern belief in a harmonious, Cartesian, mechanical universe in which everything that exists moves together, in an intricate and continuous manner, like a clock.

But cosmos predates the Early Modern period and it is tempting to think of the ancient world and our distant ancestors observing the inexorable march of the seasons, of the cycles of the moon and the beautiful arrangement of the stars in the sky and describing it with a word that meant both “order” and “adornment.”



Nous is a word with a long and varied history.  Ultimately, it comes from Ancient Greek, where it meant something like “mind” or “intelligence.”  While the original word most likely carried with it a fairly mundane connotation of “common sense,” the word and the concepts surrounding it evolved over time.  This evolution led to nous being heavily linked with the traditions of Hermetism (a philosophy developed in Greco-Egyptian Alexandria during the first centuries AD) and Hermeticism (a Neoplatonic philosophical current common during the Renaissance) to refer to the original intelligence, believed to be the first thing to emerge from the void when the world was created.  In Platonic terms, nous creates the forms upon which the world is based and is, in other words, a higher form of intelligence that creates a bridge between man and the unknowable.

From its roots in Ancient Greek as “common sense'” through the philosophical and religious accretions of its Alexandrian and Renaissance phases, where it was quite clearly connected to concept of divinity, we have arrived in modern times at a point when its main usage relates to athletics.

Outside of academic texts devoted to philosophical and esoteric ideas, nous is almost never encountered, at least outside of Britain.  Within Britain, the word’s tenuous existence is almost entirely confined to the world of football commentary.  Even in this context however, it is not frequently used, being reserved for descriptions of players with an instinctive, intuitive feel for the game.  In this usage nous is often combined with a particular aspect of the sport, such that a player can be said to be possessed of “tactical nous,” or a coach, such as Zinedine Zidane, can be said to lack “coaching nous.”

The meaning implied here is that the person being described is inspired (literally, animated or filled with a feeling or purpose) by some supernatural or divine understanding that allows them to make just the right move at the right time.  Further, the implication is that this intuitive knowledge is not possessed by other players who lack the same connection to “divine” sources of inspiration.

What is fascinating about nous is how its usage has toggled back and forth between the sacred and the mundane over the centuries, with its current status, at least in English, being somewhere in the middle.  By this I mean that the current usage of nous, mostly limited to the world of football, carries with it the hint of its earlier connection to divine inspiration.  While I don’t believe that football commentators are explicitly trying to get this meaning across, I do think there is a subconscious recognition of the fact that nous has deeper roots.  Otherwise, why not just say “intuition”?


Wayward is interesting because, like so many words with a faintly archaic cast, there is a potentially deeper layer of meaning connected to its historical roots that lies beneath the accepted modern usage of the word.

Wayward breaks conventionally into two easily and digestible pieces, way and –ward.  First, way turns out to be aphetic, meaning that there was previously an unstressed vowel sound at the beginning of the word that has been dropped.  Its original form was away.   

The second element, -ward, is generally defined as something like ‘towards’ which is considered to be descended from the Old English word weard, and is related to the German word -wärts and the Latin term vertere, meaning ‘to turn’.

So, the original adjective ‘(a)wayward’ applies to someone who has ‘turned away’, with the implication that they have turned their back on something omnipresent and essentially “right”, such as family, religion, accepted morality, etc.  As a shorthand, let’s call these things societal norms.

In general usage, in order to be described as wayward, one must turn one’s back on societal norms on an ongoing basis which, from the self-righteous perspective of society, implies a long and miserable process.  This idea of the rejection of society as an ongoing journey activates a latent potential meaning in the truncated first element of the word in the sense that it brings to the fore the connotation of way as a ‘path’ or a ‘road’ down which one travels as one continually rejects society.

Ward also has another meaning besides the one listed above that can be derived from it’s Old English root, one that actually fits more closely with its general usage today: ‘to guard’ or ‘to protect’.  A warden guards prisoners, a ward of the state is, in theory anyways, proteced by the state, one wards off an attack, etc.

Looked at in this manner, someone who is wayward could be one who is protective of their individual way, who keeps their path separate, segregated from that of the mainstream of society.  I prefer this image, of the confident and dynamic person hacking their own path through the jungle, than that of a shamed dilletante who won’t conform to society’s rules out of pure dumb stubbornness.


The word eldritch has fascinated me since my teen years, when I first encountered it in the writings of the 20th Century master of the Weird Tale, H.P. Lovecraft.  From the first moment that I came across it, the word evoked a sense of disgust and dread, of ancient and unspeakable things.

Most current definitions of the word essentially amount to ‘otherworldly’, which is derived from an analysis of the Old English roots of the word: el means ‘foreign’ and rice means ‘kingdom’.  From this angle, eldritch means something that is foreign and out of place, physically dislocated, though the clear connotation exists that this location is somehow abnormal.  An object from Alabama, or even one from Timbuktu, is highly unlikely to be described as eldritch, though one from Mars might be.

This definition of eldritch seems to me to address only half the word’s potential and to leave unaddressed an element more interesting than location: time.

By breaking the word’s Old English roots into el and rice as conventional definitions do, one conveniently ignores the “d” that constitutes the hinge on which the word swings.  By adding this back into the first part of the word, one ends up with eld, which connotes age (think of your elder brother, the town elders, etc.).  When this concept of something aged is grafted onto rice, ‘kingdom’ we now have a word that describes something from an ‘old kingdom’.

What a world of possibilities this interpretation opens up.  While a ‘foreign kingdom’ could be anywhere in the world or, to be fair, even on another world, an ‘old kingdom’ or, even better, an ‘old foreign kingdom’, can be anywhere in time or space.  Eldritch things are horrifying to modern aesthetic sensibilities not simply because they are wrong for our time and place, but because we sense that they are connected to our own deep past.

What does it say about one’s philosophical orientation if one believes that there were things in existence in prehistoric times of which our science has retained no trace and for which theories such as evolution and progress can provide no answers?