Sunday, December 18, 2011

Heavy My Fardels Today

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
          [Shakespeare, Hamlet]

Use short, declarative sentences. Yes. Unless you’ve learned your letters and you are Shakespeare. But this but an aside. My subject is fardels—and my superficial ignorance. Today’s waking shock for me was reading that the Senate had passed a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut, so called, and the word “fardel” came spontaneously to my mind. Why, I wondered. And then I wondered: What does that word actually mean? I realized that I meant pigsty, a word that seemed to me very descriptive of today’s Washington, but a troubling undercurrent told me that I had it wrong. Shakespeare, wasn’t it? Had only ever seen that word in Shakespeare somewhere. But first, the dictionary. F-A-R-D-E-L.

Turns out that fardel means bundle today. Thus Webster’s asserts, and they know more than I do. But archaically, and that surely could mean Shakespeare, it meant burden. Not pigsty. On to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It never fails to enlighten. I learned that the word probably came from the Arabic, fardah, where it means a package. Reminded me that distant wars always introduce new words into the language, and that fardah entered French no doubt as far back as the Crusades, thence into English. Nothing propinqs like propinquity, and thus I also learned, sort of by the way, that when a woman puts on makeup, she is actually farding her face, but that word, turns out, comes from the Germanic fard, no doubt the root whence Germans get Farbe for color.

My superficial linguistic memories are spotty, but my deeper unconscious caverns are deeper. Reading about the Senate this morning made me feel the burdens of my times, and hence that word was there to give them a proper name. But pigsty is not a bad update. Not bad at all.

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