Friday, November 22, 2013

Bitter Leaf Litter

"The word shelter was still in my head. I had to feel it shrivel."

     I, the story, alone survived. I'll tell my own tale, damn it. Not that you or anyone else of your kind could, or has, or ever will be able to do. It's just that I know you. I am you. I am all of you, and all of you together, just barely, might someday make up most of me. I'm not boasting, simply stating the truth: there was so much of me in all of the you that already haven't survived, I can't be sure now what aspects will be left complete by the time any little one of you gets around to meeting me.
     Let me give you an example, give you shelter. As that fine, precolonial word floats around now, you'd think the etymology was in question. Now etymology is only a confined, peculiar form for me. In it, you start with the ending, well-known and to most folks uninteresting, then reweave the history backward to the oldest extinct language you believe, with any common conviction, existed. That's the story, a rarefied form of an origin story and just as typically false. So from where, in my etymological sense, did shelter come? Look at this:
     "shelter (n.)
1580s, 'structure affording protection,' possibly an alteration of Middle English sheltron, sheldtrume 'roof or wall formed by locked shields,'from Old English scyldtruma, from scield 'shield' (see shield (n.)) + truma 'troop,' related to Old English trum 'firm, strong' (see trim). If so, the original notion is of a compact body of men protected by interlocking shields. OED finds this 'untenable' and proposed derivation from shield + -ture
     There's another version of me in the etymology of "untenable," but leave that be. Of interest here is not the pedantic divergence but the narrative convergence. Shield! Even the OED, arbiter of English etymology, agrees that shelter derived from shield. Think about that behind your mantled brows a moment. Can you easily conceive of a less sheltering feeling, for an animal, than the situation requiring cowering under a disk of shield? Weapons of maiming and death are raining blows upon you as you hold up your reinforced frame of cowhide or dented alloy and pray to supernatural beings (of my own invention, thank you very much) that, by some freak of probabilistic coincidence you will later call a miracle, your shield holds?
     That, dear users of language, is all your shelter. Don't get me started on your storyteller.

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