Word for Wednesday: Braving the elements

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Having woken up to a bout of spectacularly apocalyptic weather this morning which has continued for the whole of the day, I felt moved to explore the etymologies of what are widely known as the four ‘Classical Elements’: terra, aqua, aer and ignis (earth, water, air and fire).

Earth’ comes from the Old English 'eorþe' meaning dry land, and by the time this word was widely used around 1000 years ago it had already began to refer to the earth in the wider, terrestrial sense.

The word ‘Water’ as we know it comes from the proto-Germanic 'watar', meaning just that. Etymology Online suggests that Proto Indo European (PIE) had two stems for the word water. The most interesting of those can still be found in Sanskrit – 'apah', the idea of water as an animate entity with a mind of its own, looking outside it definitely seems that way! A similar balance between animate and inanimate can be found in the etymology of the word fire…

Air spans from the Greek 'aer'. Can you imagine the mystery and terror that must have surrounded the destructive power of wind before scientific understanding, like some malevolent entity wreaking invisible havoc. In the works of Homer (the ancient Greek epic poet Homer, that is) the word 'aer' refers more to a thick mist or fog a very visible species. It wasn’t until later that air took its place amongst the so-called ‘Classical Elements’.

Finally lets look at what is arguably our most destructive element, Fire. 'Ignis', one of fire’s apparent roots alludes to Fire as a living entity (like water, see above). It is easy to see why elements had deities ‘assigned’ to them – each of these elements do appear to have a life of their own…

Stay safe and don't take the elements for granted...

Hugh MacDermott

05 Feb 2014
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