Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Head Trip

I hear that the twenty-first century will belong to biology as the twentieth did to physics.  This is sort of bad news for me, since the small biology I know, though it proved sufficient to allow me to play my modest part in the perpetuation of the species, is pretty primitive.  I did have a high school biology class, and in it I was taught something called Haeckel’s Law: "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny".  I never quite got it, which is sort of good news for me, since a biologist recently told me that nobody believes it anymore.

            I went in a different direction.  I went wordwards.  Saint Augustine says that all study has but two possible objects: things and signs.  In general, scientists study things, humanists signs—the richest of all sign systems being human language.  So the question I set out to answer was different from Haeckel’s.  I wanted to know what ontogenizes recapitulation (or capitulation, for that matter).  The answer is philology.  Philology ontogenizes recapitulation.  Fleming’s Law.

            If all this seems a little obscure, just wait.  It will gradually become entirely opaque.  I grew up off and on an Ozark farm.  Its chief product was Hereford cattle, but no one in those parts has the moxie to call such an operation a “ranch,” a word in any case now chiefly used for gated communities in suburban Las Vegas.  The number of cattle owned by a cattleman is of course of economic significance, but no one would commit the solecism of saying they had “thirty cows”.  Such a person had thirty head.

            It was probably about in my ninth year—while pondering the distinction in usage daily heard on the radio farm reports between the sales figures for head of cattle and pork bellies—that the inestimable importance of the word head for Indo-European cultures flashed upon my mind.  It was confirmed via the headlines of a newspaper, though it was at that time intuition rather than philological fact.  When I eventually learned a little Latin and in particular the Latin word for head, caput, things began to fall into place.

            Philology ontogenizes recapitulation as follows.  A capitulum was a heading on a piece of writing, including such writings as legal contracts and peace treaties.  If you made up a list of main points you were capitulating.  In Shakespeare’s English both winners and losers did it.  There was no more shame in capitulating than there is in recapitulating today.  About the same time I realized that the unparalleled opulence of the English lexicon was the result of a certain kind of Anglo-Saxon greed.  Chaucer and his literary successors were not satisfied with one good Old English word for head.  They wanted also its French equivalent and a learned Latin version as well—three in all: headline, chapter, caption.  When the English plundered Latin directly, they went for the c-words; French gave them ch-words.  So the head of a military band is a captain, the head of an Indian tribe a chief.  The captain of the kitchen is the chef.

            But we must return to our muttons—or rather, since this is mainly about our language, to our cattle.  Marx was depressingly right.  If you want to understand history, follow the money.  Read almost any contract and you will find your property divided into two classes: moveable and immovable.  Chaucer still used the French meubles for “furniture”.  Your castle, on the other hand, is generally immovable, even if it is in France and called (challed?) a chateau.  The situation becomes somewhat perplexing, however, when we consider certain things that had happened to the French language by the time our English forebears began to plunder it in earnest.  In the twelfth century the inter-vocalic s of certain Latin words withered away in Old French, leaving only the (modern) circumflex to tell the sad tale.  This meant that a hostel became an hôtel, a provost, a prévôt, etc.  A little later, furthermore, some nouns ending in –el shifted to –au.  The modern French word for a heavy burden is a fardeau; but Hamlet in his famous soliloquy explains the motive of those who will bear fardels.

            You can then easily grasp that castle (castel), and chateau (ex-chastel) are obviously the same word in different garb.  But these words are no less clearly related to the s-losers cattle and chattel.  Cattle used to mean any worldly possessions, but the particular priorities of agrarian culture eventually won out.  For a brief linguistic period we tried to distinguish between live and inert property with the phrase quick cattle (today’s livestock).  Quick used to mean lively in its literal sense, as in the clause of the Creed that proclaims that Christ at his Second Coming will judge the entire human race, “the quick and the dead”.  So lawyers agreed on the distinction between cattle (animal possessions) and chattels (inert possessions).

            Both, of course were forms of capital.  Indeed, capital and cattle used to mean the same thing.  I don't suppose it is necessary to supply the etymology of the word capital?—from caput, “head”.  So naturally you know what real capital punishment was.


  1. Apropos of immovable vs. movable possessions, the Italian word for “real estate” is immobiliare.

  2. We still use "quick", in the sense of "alive", when speaking of the "quick" under our fingernails. Only instance I can think of, though.

  3. Not to mention the modern French slang use of "capout" (Germans say kaputt) for something (or someone) which is broken down, dead or damned...

  4. Capital post!

    There's he quickening of a child, which does have an antiquarian air, as does the hymn: Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly dove / With all thy quick'ning powers.