Sunday, September 12, 2010

Word of the Day: Wake

Sometimes, contrary to popular belief, I indulge in the etymology not of very odd words, or invented words, but of simple words whose roots have been lost. Today's word is one such. What is it to 'wake' something, or to attend a 'wake', or to be a 'wake', or to leave a 'wake'?

The original root of the word seems to be the Sanskrit vaja, which has the sense later transmitted to the Latin vigor—that is, the quality of being vigorous, lively, driven. To wake somebody is to make him come alive, to invigorate or to drive him onwards (hence a 'wake-up call' is a peremptory summons to 'look alive').

At the same time, the essence of the word's meaning mutated with time, from 'lively', to 'alert', to 'watchful'. And so, we got 'vigil' and 'vigilant', in which the protagonist had to be awake and alive to be watching out. To nobody's surprise, it was the Irish who converted the sense of 'wake'='on watch' to 'an occasion of keeping watch over dead bodies to make sure they don't come back to life.' Nowadays, of course, we use it in the sense of watching over the dead to remember them when they were alive.

On the other hand, the great Anglo-Danish hero, Hereward, was also called 'the Wake'. In that sense, he was a watcher, a watchful one, a watchman over the evils of this world. I have some sort of historical kinship with him; the man's base was on the Isle of Ely, whose name is on my birth certificate.

The last sense of wake is the trail left by something moving through a fluid. In this sense, the word comes from the same root as Latin vacuum, 'a void'. The Old Norse vaka means 'a hole in the ice', and it was probably from this that the word entered the English language to mean the hollow space left astern as a seagoing vessel goes forward. When we say that we are 'left behind in the wake' or are 'trailing in the wake' of someone, we imply that this person moves so quickly and massively that people behind are sucked into the vacuum of movement.

I'd just like to end by noting the fact that 'vacuum' has three syllables. It is pronounced 'vac-u-um' and not 'vac-ium' as I've heard before. The latter irritates me, unreasonably I suppose, but a lot nevertheless.

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