Normally, the Mashed Radish begins with a word or theme and wanders its way back to its ancient root. In a recent post, though, I got excited by *dheigh, the Proto-Indo-European root that gave English the now obsolete dey, “female servant,” which lives on, though in hiding, in dairy. So, this post, let’s switch it up. As we saw, this *dheigh was also balled up into the English “dough.” But there’s more to the root: What are some of the other interesting creations that Indo-European languages baked out of *dheigh?
I’ll stick to my favorite three: paradise, lady, and fiction.
First, real quick, let’s revisit this asterisk in front of *dheigh and other roots. It means the root is hypothetical. We have no records of Proto-Indo-European: no documents, no recordings of speech. So, historical linguistics look at all the evidence they do have–comparing forms across documentation of German, Gothic, Latin, Sanskrit, say–to reconstruct their best guess at what the root should be based on these comparisons.
What’s paradise mean to you? A tropical island, a quiet cabin hidden in the forest, a Parisian penthouse? Try “an enclosed park” or “garden.” The word comes from the Old Persian, pairidaeza, and is made up of two components: pairi, “around,” is cognate to the prefixes per-, peri-, and para-, which we’ve seen in “proto,” and daeza, “wall.” At the base of this daeza is the Proto-Indo-European *dheigh, a verb that means “to form,” “mould,” or “shape,” originally out of clay. The word passed into the Greek as paradeisos, as Weekley notes:
The G[reek] word, first in Xenophon, is used of a Persian enclosed park, and was adopted by LXX in [the Old Testament] for Garden of Eden, and in [the New Testament] for abode of the blessed, which is the oldest E[nglish] sense.
The LXX refers to the Septuagint, or the Greek Old Testament, translated from the Hebrew into Greek in the 3rd century BCE. In English, the Oxford English Dictionary attests a form of paradise before 1180, indeed referring to “the abode of Adam and Eve before the Fall, the garden of Eden.” Around the same time, the word was coming to refer to conceptions of heaven, and by the 1300s, its uses were already being extended to broader metaphors.
The descendants of *dheigh are ancient and sturdy. Old Irish had dehah for “body” (“that which is formed”). Tocharian had tseke for “statue.” Old Persian also had dida for “castle.” Armenian made it into “pile,” Russian into “baker’s trough,” and Lithuanian into “cudgel.” Many were the “walls,” such as what Greek and Avestvan formed of the root.
From the mundane to the metaphysical, the quotidian to the sacred, from gardens to kitchens, *dheigh is a wall that won’t fall down.
What do you think of as a lady? A generic term for the female sex? A derogatory one? Maybe Victorian notions of refinement or more literary ideals come to mind? But what about bread?
Originally, lady was hlaefdige. Literally, hlaefdige was “loaf-kneader.” In Old English, it was a compound, joining hlaef (loaf, bread) and dige (related to dey, “maid,” and dough). Is that all a woman was to the Anglo-Saxons?! Well, a lord, in the same way, was hlaefweard, “loaf-keeper,” with the second element related to ward, as in a “guard.” In my book, it takes a lot more muscle to knead bread than it does to watch over those who eat it, so lady is the true “bread”-winner.
But what happened to the word? Where did all those sounds go? As the Oxford English Dictionary observes, the ae sound became shortened, the dige was reduced to di (remember, the g was more like a y), and the f switched to a v and became buried by the d. Then, the first syllable became long due to the Great Vowel Shift. And voila! We end up with lady, disguised compounds and all.
Want to write the next great novel? The next Moby Dick or Ulysses? I suggest you use Play-doh. See, fiction goes back to the Latin, fingere, “to shape” or “fashion,” and, originally, “to model in clay” or “knead bread.” Its past participle was fictus, shaped into “fictio,” a “feigning” or “invention,” direct source of fiction. Related is fictile, meaning “made of clay” or “able to be shaped.” Related also is figura–”shape,” “body,” “form”–and source of the English figure, whether of number, thought, or physique.
Or perhaps Harry Potter is more your style: indeed, a figulus was a potter.
By the end of the 1500s, fiction in the literary sense is attested.
The Primordial Act
Paradise, lady, and fiction: Three words whose form and meaning suggest they have utterly nothing common. But through etymology, we witness that primordial act, the shaping of form. Making–making buildings, cooking food, creating art, forming identities. We see, too, that primordial act of language, that great engine of language change, that great mechanism of etymology: metaphor. Hidden *dheigh may be, but transformed we should consider it, like clay into walls and pots, like dough into bread. At the Mashed Radish, that’s my garden, my paradise–the root, the original metaphor.