Thursday, October 1, 2009

Deciduous Cascades, or the Falls of Fall

It is often forgotten that [dictionaries] are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.
-Jorge Luis Borges, Prologue to "El otro, el mismo."

Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth's marvels, beneath the dust of habit.
-Salman Rushdie

Thurston Hatcher Falls

Pardon my imprecision. I should have known the difference between waterfalls and cascades. A cascade of water doesn’t leave the surface of the rock, while a waterfall does. At least, that's how I heard it explained this week.

CASCADE. A lovely word. With a slightly better grasp of its meaning I began to consider its origin. Perhaps it was a compound of two roots, cas + cade, and if so, what did they mean?

But I was wrong. The English word cascade dates back to 1641, from the Italian word cascata, which was derived from the Latin verb cadere, “to fall.”

I found this information at the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Digging a little deeper at that site, I learned that our word fall came from the Old English feallan. As a name for the season, it is short for fall of the leaf (1545).

Fall, in the sense of a waterfall or cascade, dates from 1579. Most of the figurative senses of fall developed in the Middle English: to fall asleep (1393), to fall in love (1530), to be reduced, such as a fall in temperature (1658).

Deciduous plants are the botanical show-offs of fall and the word deciduous is closely related to cascade.

Deciduous, as a reference to trees, dates from 1778. The word came from the Latin decidere “to fall off” which was a compound of de- “down” and cadere “to fall.” And so, when we speak of deciduous trees and cascading water, both words can be traced back to that same Latin root, cadere.

Flat Creek (Heintooga)

Such are the crooked paths on which my curiosity sends me. While using this website, I became curious about who created it, and was delighted to learn the story of Douglas Harper:

I began this project after I looked one day for a free dictionary of word origins online and found that there was none. You could subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary for $550 a year. There were free dictionaries with definitions, some lists of slang words and their sources, and some sites that listed a few dozen of the strangest etymologies of English words. But there was no comprehensive public list of the words we use every day -- words like the and day -- that told what they used to be before we got them.

For some reason no university has seen fit to shackle its graduate students to the cyber-mill, grinding out an online etymology dictionary. So I decided to do it for them. I also did this to increase my understanding of the language, and its ancestors and relatives. As a writer and editor with an amateur's passion for linguistics, I took this as a joy ride more than drudgery. And I know so much more useless trivia than I did when I started (applaud is related to explode; three people can have a dialogue; and if anyone calls you feisty, slug him).

Etymologies are not definitions; they're explanations of what our words meant 600 or 2,000 years ago. Think of it like looking at pictures of your friends' parents when they were your age. People will continue to use words as they will, finding new or wider meanings for old words and coining new ones to fit new situations. In fact, this list is a testimony to that process.

Chattooga at Bullpen

I suspect there’s a name for the subgenre of autobiography devoted to the author’s background of books and reading, but I don’t know what it is. I do know that Douglas Harper shares a terrific example of that form:

For a reader who loves words and loves reading the words of a writer who loves words, Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary warrants a leisurely visit.


Anonymous said...

I do hope you are submitting photography for publications and competition. I'm told I not an easy audience for art or literature (maybe Im just picky or opinionated) but I find your work consistently excellent. It helps, of course, that you have absolutely magnifient subjects.


Jim Parker said...

Wonderful, I had never know the difference between cascade and waterfalls. The Cascades just north of the US 421 junction with the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of my favorite places in the world.

GULAHIYI said...

I just discovered that place last year, and agree that it is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Ah! The Internet...what a wonder-filled library! i just returned from Yosemite and had stumped the rangers with: Cascades & waterfalls, what's the differance? Then i find this site! To the keeper of this flame...Thank you! i too am a photographer...and i love the art of the word...i will referance this site, often, for both illumination and reflection.
Robt. A. Howe

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks for the comment. That made my day.