Thursday, March 14, 2013

To Eschew is Not to Chew

The Wall Street Journal this morning has as its subhead to its lead story the following: Catholics’ Selection Of Pope Francis Eschews Tradition. Quite a mouthful. My oldest big Webster’s defines eschew as follows: To avoid, as something wrong or distasteful; to abstain from; to keep one’s self clear of; to shun. So why did the WSJ not use one of the headline words like shun, avoid, or side step? Did the impenetrable mystery of a closed enclave suggest a mysterious word? I do honestly wonder how many people readily understand that word—or, for that matter, two others of the same ilk: eschatology and escheat.

English for me was the fourth language I encountered (not counting Latin), hence I once looked it up and discovered that it links, by way of Old High German, sciuhen (“avoid, escape”) to the common German word scheuen (to fear, avoid) or scheu, which means the same feeling as “shy.” In Old English that same word was sceoh. As you can see, we have a plain old and well-known Germanic word native to English already. Catholics’ Selection of Pope Francis Shies from Tradition. But there was that Norman Invasion, don’t you know. And therefore we got our eschew from Old French eschiver; that’s where that leading e comes from. It modifies the Old Frankish, skiuhan, which sounds a lot like sciuhen. And that e? Well, that’s the Latin part, echoing ex-, “out of,” and in this case “away from.”

Eschatology is one of those words I used to look up every other year when younger; as I’m plowing deeper into my seventies, the word has come to yield its meaning instantly. It is the science of final things, the last things, a ways back four things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. The e there meant “beyond.” And escheat? It’s the feudal word from which we get “cheat,” meaning to do someone out of something valuable—or, extended to marital relations, to violate one’s vows. The root is Latin, excadere, the ex meaning “away,” cadere “to fall.” Something that “falls away,” more precisely something that “reverts.” In feudal times land granted by some lord to a family could revert back, escheat, to the lord if the male line died out or the family could not maintain its fees. Survivors were, and felt, cheated.

Now to deal with my headline. Chewing comes, not surprisingly, from a Proto-Indo-European root, *gyeu-. We’ve been chewing for a long time. By the time Old English came to be spoken, that root had yielded ceowan. If you pronounce that c as a k, it is easy to see why Germans to this day engage in kauen. Which means that when we are eschewing something, we’re definitely not engaged in chewing—unless by sheer coincidence.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, this is a nice post too. I must tell you, I think most readers of the WSJ will immediately understand the word eschews. Now, eschatology and escheat are both new words for me and, I suspect, would cause many a reader of the WSJ to reach for a dictionary.

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