Friday, June 1, 2012

Footnote to Emerson

Earlier today I included a quote from Emerson’s “Ode, Inscribed to William H. Channing.” The relevant verse contains the lines, “The horseman serves the horse, / The neat-herd serves the neat.” So what does that word, neat, actually mean? It comes, in that form, from the old Anglo-Saxon for cattle, nēat. Also from Anglo-Saxon comes cu, for the female—whence we have “cow”; the current German for that same word is Kuh. The “neat-herd, therefore, is the cattle- or cow-herd. Our poor (or well-endowed) language! After the Norman invasion, read invasion of the French language, the French bœuf for cattle or for ox got streamlined into “beef,” and the neat gradually disappeared. Emerson used neat because it served as a good rhyme for a later line in that ode: “The eater serves his meat.” William H. Channing was a leading writer, philosopher, and Unitarian minister. 

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