The Language of Remembering

I’m a self-professed WordNerd. Perhaps that seems obvious for a writer, but my fascination with words extends deeper than the stories they can tell. I’ve been known to play with sentence structure for hours and get lost in a thesaurus searching for synonyms. After hearing or reading a new word, I practically leap to a dictionary to discover its meaning and origin. To me, the way a word develops, its etymology, reveals a story unto itself — so many thousands of words and phrases altered in context over hundreds of years as society changes its course.

Just as fascinating as the linguistic changes (at least from a WordNerd viewpoint) are the commonalities, proving that some emotions and situations stick firmly to our human condition… the dangling participles on our DNA. The ribosomes of our verbal cytoplasm build a vocabulary of love, hate, pain, joy, honor, deceit, pride, humiliation, peace and war.

War. As unending and constant as all the others.

Memorial Day rests on the calendar for this weekend. I annually clarify the point of Memorial Day to my children, lest they grow up believing this holiday’s moniker comes from instructions to remember ingredients for the BBQ sauce recipe: “It started after the Civil War as a national movement to honor the fallen soldiers of that conflict, and continued from there. We all take a day to reflect on those who sacrificed their lives for their country.” This year, I’m challenged for further interpretation by one of my younger ones (maybe a burgeoning WordNerd-let?) who wants to know exactly what a “Memorial” is, rattling off the other uses of the word — Memorial Day, Memorial Fund, In Memoriam, Memorial Foundation, Memorial Gardens, Memorial Hospital — and asking me if those are all for honoring soldiers. Nothing sparks locutionary research like the curiosity of a beloved little boy.

I tell him the moniker comes from the act of remembering, whether the life of a soldier or a friends and family or a heroic deed; to memorialize means to openly acknowledge our admiration for someone or something never to be forgotten. He needs to look it up… definitely a dangling participle of my DNA. As I expected, we find the the ancient roots of memoria in Latin and smarati in Sanskrit which denote “remembering”. Yet, unexpectedly, we find that the Greek terms merimna and mermeros convey “care and thought” and “causing anxiety” respectively; Welsh and Old English terms also equate these roots with “sadness, anxiety, mourning.” But, the favorite discovery by far turns up the legend of a Norse giant called Mimir who guards and ancient Well of Wisdom. That one stops us in our figurative tracks.
How powerful. We picture Viking warriors around a flame telling tales of Mimir, all of them understanding through these legends that knowledge is acquired by listening to the ancients. The Well of Wisdom overflows with lessons from the past, messages remembered and taught to the next generation. And isn’t that what we truly want from all of our various memorials — to hear the voices of our ancestors telling us how to move forward without them? Those proverbs may be etched in stone monuments, heralded in song, festooning doorways  or paraded down the street.  But, they are also whispered in prayers, blossoming in fields, gleaming from a baby’s eyes and glowing from a firefly. Are you listening? Will you remember?