Milk, Beads, Thongs, and the Spiral Nebulae

Widely known as an author, teacher, and lexicographer, BERGAN EVANS is on the faculty of Northwestern University,

In World War II, in an experiment in secret communication that would have delighted James Bond, the Navy placed Navajo Indians on various ships and simply had them talk to each other in Navajo.

The assumption that an intimate knowledge of idiomatic Navajo would be rare among Japanese naval officers was probably well founded. But since a discussion of wickiups or wampum would have been of little value to the Navy, it must also have been assumed that an Old Stone Age language of desert nomads could be adapted and expanded to deal with the technicalities and complexities of modern naval warfare, with navigation, degaussing, air cover, firepower, radar, and the like — as it could, surprising as it may seem. Actually, its adaptation would only be a dramatic illustration of what almost every language has done in the past two or three centuries and continues to do as we plunge on into the vast unknown.

Consider, for instance, one of the most startling recent adventures of human awareness, the realization that certain astronomical bodies hitherto assumed to be galaxies are something wholly different — infinitely distant, fantastically enormous, incredibly radioactive. In comparison to them the hydrogen bomb is ludicrously insignificant.

With what words can we meet them? How does the mind reach out to touch anything so bewildering? “Quasi-stellar radio sources” is all the astonished astronomers yet can call them. “A thrilling mystery, an exciting enigma,” Northwestern’s Professor Hynek exclaims. “The most bizarre and puzzling objects ever observed through a telescope,” says Cal Tech’s Professor Jesse L. Greenstein. Perhaps the product of “catastrophic implosion,” ventures Fred Hoyle, the Cantabrigian cosmologist.

Well, that’s a beginning at least; and an examination of four of the more recondite-seeming terms employed — galaxy, bizarre, enigma, and catastrophic — comforts us with the assurance that although our heads are farther above the clouds than ever, our feet are still firmly on the earth.

Galaxies are so called because they resemble the Milky Way, which was the galaxy until we learned there were others. And galaxy is simply an extension of the Greek word for milk. Galactose is milk sugar.

Bizarre is almost as bizarre for a word as 3C 273 is for a star. It is the Basque word for beard. Basque is a tiny island of non-Indo-European speech in the vast sea of English, Italian, Russian, Romanian, and other related Indo-European tongues. And while people did not perceive formerly that most European languages were, in a sense, mere dialectal variations, they did perceive that Basque was mighty peculiar. It was said that the devil had tried for seven years to learn Basque and had finally abandoned the attempt. Some said that even the Basques themselves did not understand it.

Now, whether the Basques wore strange beards or whether any word of theirs was thought in itself to carry a suggestion of strangeness, or whatever, no one knows. But we do know that the Italian bizarro, which had been borrowed from the Spaniards, who had borrowed it from the Basques, came to mean capricious, unaccountable. And since Italy then set the fashion, what was bizarre to the Italians was bizarre to the rest of Europe too.

Enigma goes back to a Greek word meaning to speak in riddles, to speak darkly. And back of that it seems to have meant a fable or an allegory. And even further back it is related, seemingly, to a mumbling plea to be excused from some task or duty.

The root meaning of catastrophe is a strap or leather thong. And since such thongs were often twisted or plaited for greater strength, or perhaps because something fastened with such a thong was more manageable and could be turned and handled more easily, out of the idea of the thong came the idea of twisting or turning. And the verb that conveyed this idea — the Greek strephein — was applied to the turning and wheeling of the chorus in the Greek tragedies, giving us the strophe and the antistrophe and the apostrophe. And at the end of the play, the katastrophe, the downturning, the disaster which overwhelmed the protagonist, in the great poetry of the famed tragedians so moves us, even yet, to pity and fear, that the word remains our term for the greatest conceivable collapse or disaster.

So — much more like the Navajos than we thought — with a leather thong, some milk, a ludicrous beard, and a mumbled excuse, we go once more to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Astronomy is a glorious thing, certeyn. And so is speech.