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You Speak Old English

March 10, 2014   |   Author: COG
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everymancharactersYou speak Old English all day every day. Not the Middle English of Chaucer or the Modern English of Shakespeare. Old English, as in over 1,000 years old. Some words you use are twice that old.

English began with the Germanic languages of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who invaded and took over England in the fifth and sixth centuries. They forced out the language of the Brythonic Celtic-speaking natives as well as the British Latin speakers.

By the ninth century it was no longer Anglo-Saxon that was spoken, but English, or at least the version called Old English. It still had a long way to go, but many of the words we use daily were already present in the language. Though we spell and pronounce them differently, they have remained the same over the millennia.

For example, take this sentence: “Edward waved the cup to and fro like a drunk.” Every word in that sentence is the same as in the Old English of the ninth century. And many of them are even older Anglo-Saxon words, such as “Edward,” a name derived from Old German.

Take “Audrey put the apples into the basket,” another sentence that is entirely Old English, though with even older roots. “Audrey” is an Old Germanic name the Angles brought with them. “Apple” or some version of it is common to all the ancient Germanic languages. But get this: “basket” is the Brythonic Celtic of the English natives of 200-300 BC passed via Anglo-Saxon into Old English.

Many of the words at the core of our everyday lives are pure Old English. The things we do and the things around us haven’t changed much in 1,200 years.

Clever writers and poets know that these basic words of Old English have a special direct effect on the reader. Robert Frost is a prime example. His “The Road Not Taken,” starts:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler,

Frost used everyday Old English words to set the calm tone of the poem, all the better to set off the later 17th century “diverged” and the Middle English “travel/traveler.” The rest of the poem follows the same method.

So the next time you say “Alfred, get that big stick and beat those filthy great rats!” take a moment to nod your head to the medieval householder who could have said the same thing.

Sir Thomas Browne with his wife Lady Dorothy Browne

Sir Thomas Browne with his wife Lady Dorothy Browne

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a medical doctor and writer who lived most of his life in Norwich, England. Despite his heavy case load, he became one of England’s most famous authors of the seventeenth century. He influenced many later writers, among them Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Jay Gould, and Jorge Luis Borges.

Browne coined over 100 words that have become standard English vocabulary, including ‘ambidextrous’, ‘analogous’, ‘approximate, ‘ascetic’, ‘anomalous’, ‘carnivorous’, ‘coexistence’ ‘coma’, ‘compensate’, ‘computer’, ‘cryptography’, ‘cylindrical’, ‘disruption’, ‘electricity’, ‘exhaustion’, ‘ferocious’, ‘follicle’, ‘generator’, ‘gymnastic’, ‘herbaceous’, ‘insecurity’, ‘indigenous’, ‘jocularity’, ‘literary’, ‘locomotion’, ‘medical’, ‘migrant’, ‘mucous’, ‘prairie’, ‘prostate’, ‘polarity’, ‘precocious’, ‘pubescent’, ‘therapeutic’, ‘suicide’, ‘ulterior’, ‘ultimate’ and ‘veterinarian’.

Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Buriall, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk was published in 1658. It is an account of Roman burial urns found around 1650. He gives a detailed description of them, along with a brief account of burial customs through the ages.

However, the most famous part of this work – and one of the best-known of any of his many works – is the fifth chapter, where he muses on death, fame, and the human struggle against mortality. In all, it is an extended funerary meditation tinged with melancholia.

Following are my favorite quotations from the work (spelling has not been modernized):

…they fell by long and aged decay, yet wrapt up in the bundle of time

If we begin to die when we live, and long life be but a prolongation of death; our life is a sad composition; We live with death, and die not in a moment.

…the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying

But the most tedious being is that which can unwish it self, content to be nothing, or never to have been

Had they [those buried in the urns] made as good provision for their names, as they have done for their Reliques, they had not so grosly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but Pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration. Vain ashes, which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves, a fruitlesse continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities; Antidotes against pride, vain-glory, and madding vices.

…which maketh Pyramids pillars of snow, and all that’s past a moment.

Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three Oaks.

Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man.

The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Æquinox? Every houre addes unto that current Arithmetique, which scarce stands one moment. …Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse, and have our light in ashes.

Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion shares with memory, a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables.

To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.

Others rather than be lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, were content to recede into the common being, and make one particle of the publick soul of all things, which was no more then to return into their unknown and divine Originall again.

…all was vanity, feeding the winde

…man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equall lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.

Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life

To live indeed is to be again our selves, which being not only an hope buy and evidence in noble beleevers

Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydreiotaphia is available online in the original printed version with all the s’s printed as f’s.
If that is too much for you, a modern print version can be found here.

JFK Giving Speech
I was born and reared in Birmingham, Alabama during the last 15 years of legal segregation. My adolescence corresponded with the era of Bull Connor, his firehoses and police dogs, the bombing of a church that killed four little black girls, and Martin Luther King’s, Fred Shuttlesworth’s and others’ titanic efforts to secure equality for African-Americans.

As a child I accepted the status of African-Americans as a fact of life, in the same manner I accepted my family life and education as just the way the world was. Blacks were permanent second-class citizens, under-educated, poor and without the rights of white people. That was just the way the world was. Colored-only water fountains and restricted public opportunities were a natural result of that status. Like all kids, I didn’t give a thought to whether things might be different.

That is, until 1961 when our library teacher taught us about Booker T Washington, George Washington Carver, Marilyn Horne and other great African-Americans. It awakened in me the first notions that blacks could be intelligent, could be something other than subhuman, could make a positive contribution to society. My ideas started to ferment, then to make slow changes in response to what I had learned and to the egregious actions of Bull Connor, George Wallace and others going on at that time in Birmingham.

Fifty years ago today on June 11, 1963, President Kennedy gave his Report to the American People on Civil Rights and I clearly recall how affected I was by it – the speech was a watershed moment for me. Rather than approach the subject as a legal problem and to Southerners a question of an overreaching federal government, Kennedy made a convincing moral argument in favor of full equality for African-Americans.

Following are excerpts from that speech, with some commentary at the end.

This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case.

The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the Nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?

We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.

It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.

My fellow Americans, this is a problem which faces us all–in every city of the North as well as the South. Today there are Negroes unemployed, two or three times as many compared to whites, inadequate in education, moving into the large cities, unable to find work, young people particularly out of work without hope, denied equal rights, denied the opportunity to eat at a restaurant or lunch counter or go to a movie theater, denied the right to a decent education, denied almost today the right to attend a State university even though qualified. It seems to me that these are matters which concern us all, not merely Presidents or Congressmen or Governors, but every citizen of the United States.

This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents.

We cannot say to 10 percent of the population that you can’t have that right; that your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go into the streets and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.

Although this is not the place to discuss the matter in detail, we all know that, despite vast gains, African-Americans still experience disparate housing, income and voting rights, among other things. (More info at Black Demographics.)

As mentioned, Kennedy’s speech was a watershed event in my life. If you were alive and aware fifty years ago, did you hear the speech? If so, what did you think of it then? What do you think of it today?


Attention and Generosity

June 9, 2013   |   Author: COG
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Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention — even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.

…[E]veryone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.

– Jonathan Safran Foer, How Not to Be Alone


Red word printed in blueWhen you see the color red, does the word “red” come to mind? Maybe, maybe not, but if you see the word “red,” the color itself may automatically appear to your mind’s eye.

In other words, the link going from word to image is stronger than the link going from image to word. At any rate that’s what some new research suggests.

Furthermore, the underlying cause may be that there are different circuits for processing words and processing images, and they don’t always communicate with each other.

This is demonstrated by a common parlor trick: Show a person the word “red” in blue letters and half the time they read the word as “blue.”


Everybody wants to save the world, but nobody wants to do the dishes.

Human beings are social animals – we don’t really exist, as humans, outside of a community.

It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul.

Denial is a gauze; willful denial, an opiate.

Until you have been at peace, or content, with nothing, you cannot be pleased with anything. Or that you cannot be truly happy until you have come to terms with being nothing.

Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting. – Karl Wallenda

Resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other guy to die.


Art and Pornography

June 3, 2013   |   Author: COG
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When it aspires to art, mediated work [artistic work that is not personal experience – COG] takes us into its world. We don’t consume it; it consumes us, and after the fact we can reflect on an experience we’ve had, in a kind of fantasy. That’s what losing it at the movies is all about.

Pornography goes the other direction, away from art. It is designed to move us to action – not to invite us into an experience, but to cause us to do. That’s why I talk about jihadi websites as being essentially pornographic – their purpose is to incite violence, just as the purpose of pornography is to incite sexual release.

The porn viewer is “free” of what makes him most essentially human – his communion with other human beings. And porn – inasmuch as it is porn (because nothing in life is all one thing or another) – is designed to exacerbate and deepen that isolation.

– Noah Millman: Conforming to An Idea


Eternity written in sandThere are very few things the human mind can encompass that have no beginning or end. Eternity, perhaps the transcendent and numinous, perhaps love. Even then, there is more mystery than comprehension.

But blogs are not eternal; indeed, they are the most mortal of the mortal, the mayflies of the internet. There is the inevitable first post, and just as inevitably, there is a last post. And since 95% of all blogs are abandoned,* there are a lot of last posts. I imagine more blogs end with a whimper than with a bang, just trailing off.

What makes this blog different? Its purpose is to be an online commonplace book, wunderkammer, and a home for the occasional essay. And I’ve been doing these things for years, just offline. Now they are transferred online.

How successful in fulfilling these purposes will Certified Old Guy be? How long-lasting? That gets us back to the title quotation, “At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear,” taken from Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Everything looks good when you first start, but sags with entropy and finally collapses into a bag of skin on the floor.

It all depends on whether I take that extra step to post the quotations and wonders I encounter. I readily admit it’s much easier to do so in my database program. So if this blog peters out, it will be due to laziness or the effects at attempted multitasking of a brain built for one task at a time.

* Ninety-five percent of all blogs lay effectively abandoned in 2012, not having a post in the last 120 days. So of the 634 million blogs extant, only 32 million are still active, with eight-plus million posts daily.