Saturday, March 24, 2012

Loving Greek and Latin

I was walking past an office doorway in the Special Needs wing of Foothills Medical Centre when someone called my name. "Sean!" It was a dental student, here on a visa from China. A week ago he had attended my toastmaster club. A week before that I had met him for the first time on the sidewalk, downtown, and invited him to my club. Such a surprise to see him again. Small world, eh?

"Hi!" The man's formal schooling was all finished in China; now he was here to learn more by working with hospital dentists. He invited me to sit down. As I lounged in his cubbyhole he ran by me various lengthy dental terms. I was able to swiftly puzzle out the ancient Greek words in literal translation and figure out the dental meaning. I kept getting it right. "Hey!" He was so excited he called in a nurse to watch my efforts...

* * * * *

... One of the most delightful things I ever did was take a one-semester university course in Greek and Latin. No making sentences, and very little (declensions) grammar. Just learning words. It's a good thing I don't get intimidated easily, for I felt alone in a huge lecture theater where everyone else was a future physician or biologist. I'm no scientist: I told my friends I was taking Latin because I needed to fill another science requirement "and I didn't want to cut up dead frogs." Since then a lot of students in my Community Rehabilitation program have followed "Sean's idea." If only I had taken it before I struggled through my course (with cadavers) in anatomy! (-tomy means "to cut")

The value for me has not been in "learning words for science" but in understanding words for everyday life.
At the end of the very first day of class I went down the theater stairs to the level floor at the bottom to show the professor my science fiction novel. The author, Philip K. Dick, kept using a science word repeatedly to describe a character. While my professor of Greek was from the musty old classics department he was a young guy, younger than I, who enthused over Dick's work. He looked at the word that mystified me, and explained the term included "seal fin." The character was a thalidomide survivor.

After the next class I carried my textbook down to demand, with a mixture of outrage and chagrin, "Did the author really put in the word- ...?" For our first chapter we had taken the base (root) word anth or and used in such science terms as anthropology and androgynous. It means "man." (And gyn is "woman.") Not only did the chapter break down a lot of science words that used anth as a base, but there was included a dense paragraph of words in general use such as android. I already knew from horror books that in Greek lycanthrope means werewolf. I asked, "Did some white haired old classics professor really put "werewolf" in our text?" My prof smiled. " Yes, but you were probably the only one in the whole, whole class who caught it." I thought to myself, "Hey, this course could be fun." And it was. Later I caught words like telepathy and telekinesis. (The prefix tele means "at a distance.")

One I chortled to the earnest girl next to me, a future physician, to point out defenestrate. She said innocently, "I saw it last night, and didn't know what it was." I said, "You may recall from French class that fenetre is window... It means to throw somebody out the window!"

The course wasn't hard. Our teacher told us on the first day not to worry. Just learn a few hundred base words, even fewer prefixes and suffixes, and voila! You can make oodles of words. We learned that when a scientist coins a new term "it just isn't done" to combine syllables from both Greek and Latin, not in the same word. Luckily our textbook used different fonts for the two languages, even in the index. I was such a keen student: By the final exam I was studying by using just the index.

* * * * *

It was New York Times list best selling author Rita Mae Brown who got me interested in taking the course. Her excellent book Starting From Scratch, A Different Kind of Writer's Manual sets forth very high standards for learning to be a writer. (Too high for her critics on Amazon.) Ms Brown, who at university learned to read and write in both Greek and Latin, wrote that to be an apprentice writer you would need to take these dead languages as part of your training. She added, "I can hear the howls of outrage from here..." While Brown meant this advice partly for the benefit of logic and rigor (like with math) she also meant something like "every word comes rushing to the present with a curly smoke trail out of the past, carrying old emotions and meanings." (I understand: Here at home I'm fine, but when I'm down in the U.S. I don't tell people I come from a proud clan. That's because some Yankees down there, by using clan as a diminutive, have ruined that stout old noun. President Harry Truman had more horse sense: He used an appropriate diminutive: Klu Kluxers.)

Any dictionary for adults will include the origin, not merely the definition, of each word.

When my Toastmaster (public speaking) Club has a word of the day posted at the lectern I gleefully run up to the front and break down the word for everyone to see. One night when our theme was travel, and the word was "exotic," I came to realize it meant simply being "away from one's home location." I would be considered exotic if I went to Asia.

It certainly makes my everyday world "more fun" to be able to "see" words through different smoky levels. I'm still chuckling at a realization that struck me as I was doing my final exam. One of the questions involved dorm meaning "sleep" as in student dormitories and a seed being dormant. When I handed in my test I once more went down to the floor to see my prof. I whispered, "I 'get it' now."


"Lewis Carrol," I said "and the mad hatter's tea party. I 'get' why the dormouse was always so sleepy!"

* * * * *

I will end this essay with one final word that I was so very delighted to "get."

First I must explain some prefixes and suffixes. The prefix ex, or ec, means "out of" as in the Book of Exodus, or -ectomy (cutting out), or ex-spousal unit. ("My ex") The prefix con means "together" as in confederacy or sharing dominion over land: condominium.

The suffix ic or y (when used as a vowel) means "state of." But native English speakers can't easily pronounce two vowels in a row. This means that, if a word already ends in a vowel, then before you tack on a Y you may need to insert an"s" making the suffix sy

Our solar system has planets in orbit centered about the sun. The orbits are "together" like "concentric circles." Only Pluto has an orbit "out of" the norm, one that crosses the track of the next planet in. Crazy Pluto has an eccentric orbit... That's it for prefixes and suffixes.

Consider the base word sta. It means "stand." Hence to keep my radio pole stationary I may tie on static lines to keep a stable signal for receiving news of the status quo. Bad news may shock me into a stasis.

I once (-this is a joke-) shared news with a girlfriend. Reading the paper at breakfast I commented, "It says here that many women take things personally." She leaned forward to say with heat, "I do not!"

... Unfortunately it was no joke - it was tragic - how my girl reacted in real life from thinking the world revolved around her. Like an aircraft pilot with a HUD, Heads Up Display, on the windscreen she instantly related everything to herself. No detachment. Her usual states were "upset" and "grim." No, we aren't  together anymore.

Now I am ready to talk about me... I am never delighted - quite the contrary - when I think about myself too much, when I get too much into self-improvement, take things too personally, worry over my sins, and lose my sense of humor. No, the world does not revolve around me. How delightful to realize: If I can forget myself then I can know ecstasy.

Sean Crawford,
Enjoying the seasons,
Calgary, 2010

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