With the passing of Nelson Mandela, the world has been pouring out beautiful remembrances of a life yet more beautifully lived. As I listen to and read them, I can’t help but attend to the language we are using.

Forbearance. Courage. Of the ages.

We complain so often of the abuse of language. Of exaggeration. Of imperfections. But here, while our words will never capture the greatness of such a man’s life and legacy, we witness a true example of why these words exist.

Speaking of words, as I have been reflecting, my thoughts have turned to Afrikaans, which descended from Dutch settlers in South Africa, whose most infamous contribution has been apartheidApartheid joins apart–Dutch for “separate,” borrowed from the French à part, ultimately from the Latin for “to the side”–and the suffix -heid, cognate to English’s own -hood (condition, state, quality), as in childhood.

And speaking of legacy, is this all Afrikaans can claim in English?


Yes, aardvark, holding that special distinction as the first word in the dictionary. Well, abridged dictionaries. It’s the 28th entry in the OED, from my reckoning.

In Afrikaans, aardvark , first attested in English in 1785, literally means “earth pig,” sometimes known as “antbear.” In Dutch, aard- (from aarde) means “earth,” and is so cognate. More on that in my upcoming series on the four classical elements.

Vark means “pig” or “hog” and is cognate to English’s farrow, which once had greater currency as “young pig,” “to bring forth” a young pig as a sow would, or a “litter of pigs.” Farrow comes from the Old English fearh, which, like vark is also related to our word pork. Latin has porcus, Greek has πόρκος. Proto-Germanic has *farkhaz (young pig, boar), and Proto-Indo-European has *porkos.

If I told you that out a bar, you’d probably call BS. Pork and porcus? But th-th-th-that’s all folks. Oh, and if you haven’t talked about etymology at a bar, then you haven’t lived.

Aarde also lives on in the lesser known cousin to the hyena, aardwolf, as well as aardappel, or “earth apple,” the Dutch for potato. The concept is akin to French’s pomme de terre. I love Dutch. Dutch is like English that woke up and forgot where it was for a second. Or vice versa.

Close to the Earth

I expect excoriation: aardvarks, Porky the Pig, barstool etymology, potatoes, and…Mandela?

I don’t know where I heard it from, but, one of the in memorias I came across these past few days stressed how Mandela taught us how we can’t lead from a place of hatred. And from what I’ve been learning from heads of state, journalists, and compatriots about the peerless qualities he demonstrated, you also can’t lead without a sense of humor.

And–even for as much as a person of such character doesn’t seem of this earth–humility.

Humility, from the Latin humilis, or “on the ground,” from humus,  Latin’s own word for “earth.” Close to the earth, on the ground, like the aardvark.

m ∫ r ∫


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