Word of the Week
What else would be our word this week, as the NEW year begins?
I hope you’ll forgive me a quick glance at history here – and why not, since the calendar has turned? When Tiberius Gracchus was the tribune of the people, the Roman republic had just obliterated her old enemy Carthage and sowed the land with salt, and she was rich in land and money. The state was rich, that is, but the Italian farmers weren’t, and a lot of the old veterans of the wars weren’t. So Tiberius pushed for land reforms, to take land from the state – lands whose wealth would roll into the coffers of the senators – and distribute it to the farmers and the soldiers. The old guard hated him for it, but he pressed on, and when he stood for tribune for a second consecutive term, that was a new thing in Rome, unprecedented. If a Roman called you an innovator, he wasn’t praising you. He was accusing you. Tiberius Gracchus was assassinated, and so was his brother Gaius, who tried the same measures some years later, and the Roman republic was set up for a century of civil conflict, to emerge no longer as a republic but as an empire.
But enough of the glum stuff! Sure, sometimes the new thing isn’t so good, and sometimes it’s very good indeed, and sometimes, as was the case in Rome, you need the new in order to preserve the old. In general, we like things that are old and tried and true, but we also like to be surprised with the new. Every child who is born is a promise of newness, as if he were come from heaven with a message for us to heed. Are all babies the same? No mother would say so. Their personalities seem to shine out from their eyes as soon as they open, and it’s a matter not of our forming them, but of their revealing themselves to us, and we’re delighted to see it.
For there are a couple of ways of looking at what is new. It can be what’s odd, strange, sometimes in a pleasant way, as with the harmless and curious things you find in a novelty shop. It can be what’s just happened on the scene for the first time, and that’s what the Greek neos means, and what we usually mean by our word new. It doesn’t imply any judgment about the thing itself. But what’s new can be what is fresh, beautiful, not worn out, full of life, spanking new, as the fine American idiom puts it. That’s the heart of the Hebrew word chadash, as when the psalmist cries out, “O sing unto the Lord a new song,” a song that is fresh and full of joy, and when the Lord declares by the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, I will do a new thing,” making “a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.” If you wanted that kind of newness in Greek, you didn’t use the word that had to do with the time. You used a word to describe the freshness, the surprise of it, the robust strength, the wonderful onset: kainos, whose Latin cousin we see hiding in our word recent, though the Latin loses the freshness of it. “Behold,” says God, seated upon the throne, when John sees the heavenly city Jerusalem descending out of heaven like a bride, “I make all things new.”
In Old English, our word niwe covered the whole range, meaning new, fresh, recent, novel, unheard of, but the main sense was that it was good to be new. Is it a cousin of Greek neos and Latin novus? It sure is, and you can throw in the Celtic and the Slavic limbs of our big family too, as it’s a cousin of Welsh newydd and Russian novy. See, sounds like m and n are really stable over the centuries, because they’re so easy to make. After all, aren’t they two of the three or four first consonants a baby pronounces when he gabbles mama, nana?
So then, to all of our readers, to all you who have a lot of the child in you still, a most blessed and happy New Year!