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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 14251

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

There is one group of metaphorical words which is specially interesting for the stories of the past which they tell us if we examine into their meaning. Many names of ancient tribes and nations, and some names of modern peoples, have come to be used as general words; but the new meanings they have now tell us what other peoples have thought of the nations bearing these names in history.

One of the best things that can be said about a boy or a girl is that he or she is "frank," by which we mean open and straightforward. The Franks were, of course, the Teutonic tribe which conquered Gaul (the country we now call France) in the sixth century. Unlike the English when they conquered the Britons, the Franks mixed with the Gauls and the Roman population which they conquered; but for a long time the Franks were the only people who were altogether free. From this fact the word frank came into use, meaning "free." A "frank" person is one who speaks out freely and without restraint.

The name Frank has given us a word with a very pleasant meaning, but this was not the case with all the Teutonic tribes which broke in upon the Roman Empire. A person who is very uncivilized in his manners is sometimes called a "Goth." The word is often especially used to describe a person who does not appreciate pictures and books and works of art. Sometimes architects will pull down beautiful old buildings to make place for new, and the people who appreciate beautiful things describe them as "Goths." More often, perhaps, the word Vandal is used to describe such people. The Goths and Vandals were two of the fiercest and most barbaric of the German tribes which overran the Roman Empire from the third to the fifth century. They showed no respect for the beautiful buildings and the great works of art which were spread over the empire. They robbed and burned like savages, and in a few years destroyed many of the beautiful things which had been made with so much care and skill by the Greek and Roman artists. So deep an impression did their destructiveness make on the world of that time that their names have been handed down through sixteen centuries, and are used to-day in the unpleasant sense of wilful destroyers of beautiful things.

The words barbarian and barbarous are used in the same way. We describe a child who behaves in a rough way as "a little barbarian," or a grown-up person without ordinary good manners as "a mere barbarian." And the word barbarous has an even worse meaning. It is used to describe very coarse, uncivilized behaviour; but most often it has also the sense of cruelty as well as coarseness. Thus we speak of the barbarous behaviour of the Germans in Belgium. But when the word barbarous was first used it meant merely "foreign."

To the Greeks there were only two classes of people-Greeks, and non-Greeks or "barbarians." The name barbarian meant a bearded man, and came from the Greek word barbaros. The Greeks were clean-shaven, and distinguished themselves from the "bearded" peoples who knew nothing of Greek civilization. The Romans conquered Greece, and learned much from its civilization. To them all who were not Greeks or Romans were "barbarians." Some Roman writers, like Cicero, use the word in the modern sense of unmannerly or even savage, but this was not a common use. St. Paul was a Roman citizen, for he belonged to Tarsus, a city in Asia Minor which had been given full Roman rights; but he was a Greek by birth, and he uses the word in the Greek way. He speaks of all men being equal according to the Christian religion, saying, "There is neither Greek nor ... barbarian, bond nor free."

The word slave, again, contains in itself whole chapters of European history. It comes from the word Slav. The Slavs are the race of people to which the Russians, Poles, and many other nations in the East of Europe belong. The Great War has been partly fought for the freedom of the small Slav nations, of which Serbia is one. The Slavs have a long history of oppression and tyranny behind them. They have been subject to stronger nations, such as the Turks, and, in Hungary, the Magyars. The first "slaves" in medi?val Europe belonged to this race, and the word "slave" is only another form of Slav. The word gives us an idea of the impression which the misfortunes of the Slavs made on the people of the Middle Ages.

The words Turk and Tartar have almost the opposite meaning to slave when they are used in a general sense. We call an unmanageable baby a "young Turk," and in this expression we have the idea of all the trouble the Turks have given the people of Europe since they swarmed in from the East in the twelfth century. The word Turk in this sense is now generally used amusingly to describe a troublesome child; but a grown-up person with a very quick temper or very difficult to get on with is often described also, chiefly in fun, as a "Tartar." Tartar is the name of the race of people to which the Turks, Cossacks, and several other peoples belong. The name by which they called themselves was Tatar; but Europeans changed it to Tartar, from the Latin word Tartarus, which means "hell." This gives us some idea of the impression these fierce people made on medi?val Europe-an impression which is kept in memory by the present humorous use of the word.

It is chiefly Eastern peoples whose names have passed into common words meaning fierce and cruel people. Our fairy tales are full of tales of "ogres." It is not quite certain, but it is probable that this word comes from Hungarian. The chief people of Hungary are the Magyars; but the first person who used the name Hungarian in the sense of "ogre" probably did not know this, but thought of them as Huns, or perhaps Tartars, and therefore as very fierce, cruel people. The first person who is known to have used it is Perrault, a French writer of fairy tales in the seventeenth century.

The Great War has given us another of these national names used in a new way. Many people referred to the Germans all through the war as the "Huns." The Huns were half-savage people, who in the early Middle Ages moved about in great hordes over Europe killing and burning. They were at last conquered in East and West, and finally disappeared from history. But their name remained as a synonym for cruelty. The Kaiser, in an unfortunate speech, exhorted his soldiers to make themselves as terrible as Huns; and when people heard of the ill-treatment of the Belgians when their country was invaded at the beginning of the war, they said that the Germans had indeed behaved like the Huns of long ago. The name clung to them, and during the war, when people spoke of the "Huns," they generally meant the Germans, and not the fierce, half-savage little men who followed their famous chief Attila, plundering and burning through Europe about fifteen centuries ago.

Another name with a somewhat similar meaning is assassin, which most people would not guess to have ever been the name of a collection of people. An assassin is a person who arranges beforehand to take some one by surprise and kill him. But th

e original assassins were an Eastern people who believed that the murder of people of a religion other than their own was pleasing to their God. The Arabs first called this sect by the name hashshash, which the scholars of the Middle Ages translated into the Latin assassinus. The Arab name was given because these people were great eaters of "hashish" or dry herbs.

The name Arab itself has come to be used with a special meaning which has nothing to do with the people whose name it is. A rough little boy who spends most of his time in the streets is described as a "street Arab," and this comes from the fact that we think of the Arabs as a wandering people. The "street Arab" is a wanderer also, of another sort.

Another name of a wandering people has also come to have a special meaning in English. The French word for gipsy is bohemien, and from this we have the English word Bohemian. When we say a person is "a Bohemian," we mean that he lives in the way he really likes, and does not care whether other people think he is quite respectable or not. It was the novelist Thackeray who first used the word Bohemian in this sense.

Bohemia is, of course, the name of a country in Germany, but it is also used figuratively to describe the region or community in which "Bohemian" or unconventional people live.

The word gipsy itself is used to describe a very dark person, or almost any kind of people travelling round the country in caravans. But gipsy really means "Egyptian." When the real gipsies first appeared in England, in the sixteenth century, people thought they came from Egypt, and so gave them this name.

Another name often given to very dark people is blackamoor, a name by which negroes are sometimes described. This really means "Black Moor," and shows us how confused the people who first used the word were about different races of people. The Moors were a quite different people from the negroes, being related to the Arabs. But to some people every one who is not white is a "nigger." Nigger comes, of course, from negro.

The Moors inhabited a part of North-west Africa. It was also a North African people, the Algerians, who gave us the word Zouave. Every one has seen since the Great War began pictures of the handsome and quaintly-dressed French soldiers called "Zouaves." Perhaps some children wondered why they wore such a strange Eastern dress. It is because the Zouave regiments, which are now chiefly composed of Frenchmen, were originally formed from an Algerian mountain tribe called the Zouaves-Algeria being a French possession. The name is almost forgotten as that of a foreign tribe, but has become instead the name of these light infantry French regiments.

The name of the most famous of Eastern nations now spread all over the world, the Jews, has become a term of reproach. For hundreds of years after the spread of Christianity over Europe the Jews were looked upon as a wicked and hateful people. In many countries they were not allowed to live at all; in others a portion of the towns was set apart for them, and they were allowed to live there because they were useful as money-lenders.

Naturally the Jews, persecuted and distrusted, made as much profit as they could out of the people who treated them in this way. Perhaps with the growth of their wealth they grew to love money for its own sake. In any case, before long the Jews were looked upon as people who were decidedly ungenerous in the matter of money. Everybody knows the story of the Jew Shylock in Shakespeare's great play "The Merchant of Venice." Nowadays a person who is not really a Jew is often described contemptuously as a "Jew" if he shows himself mean in money matters; and some people even use a slang expression, "to jew," meaning to cheat or be very mean over a money affair.

Another name of a nation which stands for dishonesty of another sort (and much more excusable) is Gascon. The Gascons are the natives of Gascony, a province in the south of France. It is proverbial among other Frenchmen that the Gascons are always boasting, and even in English we sometimes use the word Gascon to describe a great boaster, while gasconade is now a common term for a boastful story.

Another word which we use to describe this sort of thing is romance. We often hear the expression, "Oh, he is only romancing," by which we mean that a person is saying what is not true, inventing harmless details to improve his story. The word romance has now many meanings, generally containing the idea of imagination. A person is called "romantic" when he or she is full of imaginings of great deeds and events. Or we say a person is a "romantic figure" when we mean that from his looks or speech, or from some other qualities, he seems fit for adventures.

But romance, from which we get romantic, was at first merely an adjective used to describe the languages which are descended from the Latin language, like French, Italian, and Spanish. In the Middle Ages scholars wrote in Latin, but poets and taletellers began to write in the language of the people-the romance languages in France and Italy. The tales of adventure and things which we should now call "romantic" were written in the "romance" languages; and from being used to describe the language, the word came to be used to describe the kind of story contained in these poems and tales. Gradually the words romantic and romance got the meaning which they have to-day.

We have seen in another chapter that we have a number of words taken from the names of persons in ancient history. We have also a modern and special use of words formed from the names of some of the ancient nations. We saw that we use the word Spartan to describe any very severe discipline, or a person who willingly uses such discipline for himself.

There are several other such names used in a more or less complimentary way. We speak of "Roman" firmness, and every one who has read Roman history will agree that this is a good use of the word. On the other hand, we have the expression "Punic faith" to describe treachery. The Romans had had many reasons for mistrusting their great enemy, the Carthaginians, and they used this expression, Fides Punica, which we have simply borrowed from the Latin.

We use the expression "Attic (or Athenian) salt" to describe a very refined wit or humour. The Romans used the word sal, or "salt," in this sense of wit, and their expression sal Atticum shows the high opinion they had of the Athenians, from whom, indeed, they learned much in art and in literature. It is this same expression which we use to-day, having borrowed and translated it also from the Latin.

We speak of a "Parthian shot" when some one finishes a conversation or an argument with a sharp or witty remark, leaving no chance for an answer. This expression comes from the story of the Parthians, a people who lived on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and were famous as good archers among the ancient nations.

The way in which the names of nations and peoples have taken on more general meanings gives us many glimpses into history.

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