Three years ago an editor asked if I’d be interested in writing a column about words for his online journal. His pitch was vague though he encouraged me to develop the electronic persona of a grammar bully – a thoroughly unattractive idea. I’m interested in words mutating over time, particularly when the concrete turns metaphorical, so I suggested looking at words as linguistic kitchen middens. I would play archeologist and tease out gradations of meaning, relying on sources high and low. He tepidly agreed and then his journal went belly-up.
I want to devote occasional posts to words that catch my eye or ear, with an emphasis on the way shifts in meaning are reflected in the works of writers. To adapt a quip from Paul Klee, I want to take a word out for a walk. When, as a kid, I first read Poe’s “The Bells,” I was smitten by “tintinnabulation,” and sometimes that still happens. I’ll adopt the working assumption voiced by Emerson in “The Poet”:
“The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”
Recently I read That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, by Carlo Emilio Gadda, in William Weaver’s translation. Here are the first two sentences of the novel:
“Everybody called him Don Ciccio by now. He was Officer Francesco Ingravallo, assigned to homicide; one of the youngest and, God knows why, most envied officials of the detective section: ubiquitous as the occasion required, omnipresent in all tenebrous matters.”
The seductive word here is tenebrous, derived from the Latin tenebrosus, from tenebrae, meaning “darkness.” To my inner ear, it doesn’t sound dark, but it does sound a little high-toned. Italo Calvino described Gadda’s style as “a thick amalgam of folk expressions and learned speech, of interior monologue and artistic prose, of various dialects and quotation.” In other words, it resembles Moby-Dick, another novel into which almost any word, any tone of voice, any scrap of learning, might find a home. In most novels, “all tenebrous matters” would sound pretentious. In vernacular American-English, “dirty business” would probably suffice. I don’t know what word Gadda used in the original Italian, but Weaver’s choice of tenebrous works perfectly.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it succinctly as “Full of darkness, dark.” The first citation, circa 1420, is from The Assembly of Gods: or The Accord of Reason and Sensuality in the Fear of Death, by John Lydgate: “Tyll Cerberus/Had hem beshut withyn hys gates tenebrus.” After another three citations, the OED quotes Longfellow’s Evangeline, from 1847: “Over their heads the towering and tenebrous boughs of the cypress/Met in a dusky arch.” Longfellow put it to good use again in his translation of Canto VI of the Inferno:
"Huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow,
Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this.”
By 1599, the word was being used figuratively to mean “obscure, gloomy,” as in Thomas Nashe’s Lenten Stuffe: “To...run astray...raking out of the dust-heape or charnell house of tenebrous eld, the rottenest relique of the monuments.” In 1693, in his translation of Rabelais, Urquhart wrote: “Heraclitus, the grand Scotist, and tenebrous darksome Philosopher.” Surprisingly, Samuel Beckett seems not to have used the word, even in his most Dantean work, The Lost Ones, nor will you find it in Shakespeare or Milton.
Related to tenebrous is tenebrae, first used in English in 1651. Here’s the OED definition:
“The name given to the office of matins and lauds of the following day, usually sung in the afternoon or evening of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in Holy Week, at which the candles lighted at the beginning of the service are extinguished one by one after each psalm, in memory of the darkness at the time of the crucifixion.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia dates the practice of extinguishing lights to the fifth century. Some sources suggest the rites are rooted in the Jewish fast day of Tish B’Av, when passages from Lamentations are read and the synagogue is darkened. Geoffrey Hill titled his fourth book of poems Tenebrae (1978). In an interview with Blake Morrison, Hill said Tenebrae is:
“a ritual, and like all rituals it obviously helps one to deal with and express states which in that particular season of the church’s year are appropriate – suffering and gloom. Tenebrae does at one level mean darkness or shadows, but at another important level it clearly indicates a ritualistic, formal treatment of suffering , anxiety and pain.”
The title poem, “Tenebrae” -- eight brief poems, including two Petrarchan sonnets – seems less concerned with suffering and church ritual than others in the collection. One of the sonnets comes as close to a conventional, albeit tortured, love poem as anything Hill has published:
“And you, who with your soft but searching voice
drew me out of the sleep where I was lost,
who held me near your heart that I might rest
confiding in the darkness of your choice:
possessed by you I chose to have no choice,
fulfilled in you I sought no further quest.
You keep me, now, in dread that quenches trust,
in desolation where my sins rejoice.
As I am passionate so you with pain
turn my desire; as you seem passionless
so I recoil from all that I would gain,
wounding myself upon forgetfulness,
false ecstasies, which you in truth sustain
as you sustain each item of your cross.”
We’ve come a long way in a short space from a translated passage in Carlo Emilio Gadda, but that shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve often thought of the Internet as a grand recapitulation of human language – a vast Borgesian web. Start anywhere and explore creation. Just pick a word and take it for a walk.