Thursday, August 30, 2007

The real meaning of the Haldane motto 'Suffer' - and other fine etymological discoveries


Martin Haldane writes from Gleneagles to alert me to the real meaning of the Haldane family motto, 'Suffer'. The gloss I had learned from reading J. S. Haldane's son, J. B. S., was along the lines that you put yourself on the line to help others. That certainly fit my impression of J. S. Haldane's life. (The motto meant so much to him that he had it carved into his new Oxford home.) However I naturally accept Martin Haldane's correction: 'The Haldane motto, "Suffer", is not an English word, but rather is the imperative of the Latin verb, suffero, and is an injunction to bear up rather than to suffer, which carries rather different overtones.'
My American informant, Peter Thornton, assures me: 'The Latin verb is suffere, literally "to bear under" (sub, under, plus ferre, to bear or carry). Figuratively, it is used to mean "to take up, submit to, undergo, bear, endure, suffer." So says my Lewis, A Latin Dictionary for Schools.'
So where does our word 'suffer' come from? Peter continues: 'Our word "suffer" comes from sufferre, which passed into Vulgar Latin, Old French and finally Middle English. T.S. Eliot liked to use "suffer" in the abstract sense of "to be acted upon," the opposite of "to act".'
In fine etymological vein, Peter also takes issue with an item in my J. S. Haldane bio, Suffer & Survive. 'I do not believe that "damp," as in firedamp or blackdamp, is adopted from Modern German "Dampf," as you claim. The Columbia Desk Encyclopedia agrees with you, but the etymology is implausible. The word "damp," with the meaning "poison gas," already existed in Middle English, likely derived from the Middle Dutch "damp," vapor. In short, your etymology, but displaced by several centuries and a language.'
While having an encyclopedia on my side, I am happy to be pulled up by scholarship. Peter is apparently psychic as well as a scholar, because his email addressed the very same question I had been dealing with in conversation here in England just the day before. His information corrected my own false conclusion.
'Americans use the word "linden" to designate the tree that the British call "lime." Because "Linden" is also the German name for the tree, I assumed we had borrowed it from them, perhaps via the Pennsylvania Germans. It turns out, however, that in older English usage, both "linde" and "line" or "lime" were current names for the tree; one eventually prevailed in America and the other in Britain. early settlers in central Illinois (c. 1830s) called the tree "lin," probably a variant of the older English "line" rather than a contraction of the older "linde."'
There! While taking no credit whatsoever, I reckon I have delivered one of the most scholarly blogs of the day.

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