Merry & Mirth
How grand it was for J. R. R. Tolkien to name one of his hobbits Meriadoc Brandybuck! What a name! And of course it’s got to have its short form as Merry, our Word of the Week. The Lord of the Rings has plenty of darkness in it, as did the war-torn and madness-ridden world that Tolkien lived in, but darkness is not at its soul. Light is – both light as splendor, what strikes the soul with awe, and light as the flash and play of a dance and a song, Tom Bombadil ringing out his love-poems to his wife Goldberry, or the whimsical formality of the Ents, those tree-shepherds, who take a couple of days to say to each other, “Hello, how are you?”
Mirth, I’ve often said, is joy’s country cousin, a fiddler on a hayrick to a violinist in a concert hall. It is boyish and girlish, and sure enough, for at least seven hundred years, MERRY has been used to describe the delight that each sex takes for the other. Imagine the swinging of the girl’s pony-tail as the boy who’s her partner in the square dance twirls her about! That delight was the human race’s first and truest MERRY-GO-ROUND, long before we ever invented the wheel, or decided to turn it on its side to let children go flying round in a circle.
A lot of the classic romantic comedies from Hollywood’s golden age were filled with MERRIMENT. I don’t mean just that they made you laugh. Nor were they just sugary and childish. You really had to have the man and woman powerfully attracted to one another, and often enough in a bumptious way, but a single streak of anything snide, dismissive, sour, or sleazy would ruin the fun. For if joy brings us to the mountaintop in a moment of transcendent glory, the MERRY gives our hearts a race and causes us to forget ourselves a while, and that is as good a preparation for joy as I know. As long as you are concentrating on yourself, neither MIRTH nor joy will come near you. That’s why Charles Dickens, in Martin Chuzzlewit, plays on the names of the hypocrite Mr. Pecksniff’s daughters, Mercy and Charity. Those two selfish young ladies – the first of whom will learn better, taught by her own suffering to consider other people for a change – go by MERRY and CHERRY.
But look at the faces of children running about in play on a beach or in a field. They don’t care who’s watching them. They aren’t thinking about how they look or sound. They are half unaware of themselves. Their faces form a kind of natural harmony, not like the faces of adults at an office party, serious adults, lonely perhaps, wary, maneuvering themselves into the right conversation; that is why adults often come home from such parties irritable and tired out, not with the blessed exhaustion of children who have had their fill of play, and whose limbs melt into sleep as soon as they lay their heads down at night. Ah, the MERRIMENT of the child! Recall when the disciples were trying to maneuver themselves into the chief spot at Jesus’ right hand, murmuring in their conversation, embarrassed that Jesus might overhear them. Jesus took a little child and set him in their midst, and said that whoever would enter the kingdom of heaven must become like that child. And I would bet my life on it, that his eyes were twinkling with a secret MIRTH when he said so.
There aren’t too many cousins of the word MERRY that we know of. The best guess is that its root had to do with making something SHORT. Come again? Well, think of PASSING THE TIME. Think of the saying, “How time flies when you’re having fun!” If that’s so, then MERRY is a distant cousin of BRIEF, and with a group of words that once denoted the upper arm, which is shorter than your forearm. From one of those words we get PRETZEL – and that’s what I’d have to twist myself into, to show you how!
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