Saturday, September 10, 2005

Over the years

Language acquires cumulative inputs with the march of years. The sedimentary layers of meaning that words take on often are as clear as geological formations and afford a lot of pleasure when excavated, especially when the artefacts are as old as the following words.

Phoenix refers to a person or thing of unparalleled beauty or excellence or someone or something that has regenerated or rejuvenated after a great misfortune. The word comes from the fabulous bird of great beauty in Egyptian mythology that is famed to have lived for 500 years and burned itself on a funeral pyre, only to be born again from the ashes.

To raise Cain is a figurative expression that means ‘to become angry or reprimand someone angrily’ or ‘to behave in a boisterous manner or to create a commotion’. The expression originated in a Biblical character called Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, who killed his brother Abel out of jealousy.

Gorgon refers to any of the three monstrous sisters Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa in Greek mythology, who had snakes for hair. Anyone unfortunate enough to look into their eyes was turned into stone. This created the word ‘gorgonize’, which means ‘to paralyse, petrify or hypnotise’. Incidentally, ‘petrify’ is also Greek by origin, perhaps related to the same myth, because in Greek, petra — the root of ‘petrify’ — means rock.

The word ‘mammon’ refers to wealth and personifies an inordinate desire for it, especially material wealth that works as an evil influence. Mammon was personified as a false god in the New Testament and originated from the Aramaic mamona, meaning riches.

Anything highly intricate and extremely difficult to solve is termed ‘a Gordian knot’, an expression that owes its origin to Greek mythology, in which King Gordius of Phrygia tied a knot that defied all who tried to untie it. An oracle had prophesied that the person who would undo this Gordian knot would rule Asia. Alexander the Great cut the knot with one stroke of his sword, creating the saying, ‘to cut the Gordian knot’ and investing it with another layer of romance.