A Tapestry of Metaphor


In this essay I speculate on a possible relationship between “word,” “writing,” “weaving,” and “work.” While the essay is speculative in its etymology, I think it does show a definite intertwining of the histories of metaphors that underpin the changes in meaning we see from Indo-European, Greek, and Latin, into English. Because of limited space, my investigation into the histories of these words is of need cursory. My intent here is to entertain and provoke the reader’s own imaginative speculations, not to create a definitive history or an airtight case.

A *wer is a “high raised spot” (American Heritage Dictionary, wer1). I can imagine a letter or word carved in stone or wood being called a “high raised spot.” *Wer (ibid., wer3) also means “to turn, bend.” From this root we get our Germanic “worth,” because value is a turning toward fair exchange, and Latinate “verse,” the fruits of the poet’s turns of phrase. In olden times, a traveler was worth his board based on the value of his conversation. And everybody knows the value of the devil’s silver tongue, whose conversation can pivot on a dime, and suddenly turn to your soul’s worth.

Another sense of *wer (ibid., wer6) is “to speak.” Germanic *wurdam, Latin verbum, and Greek rhema all mean “word” and descend from this sense of *wer.

So if speaking, *wer, led to writing or carving words, *wurdam, by making raised spots, *wer, who might do the work, *werg, of all that carving?

In ancient Middle Eastern cultures, in which writing was developed at least 5,000 years ago, words were written or carved or pressed by scribes and masons. The temples controlled much of this word work. Maybe in those days a word was worth a soul—or at least a decent career.

Curiously, the Indo-European root *tem, meaning “to cut” (ibid. tem), is the root of Latin templum, “temple,” a place “cut out” for augury. But perhaps, by metaphorical extension, the notion of a temple came in time to also include the idea of writing, since the cutting of words was done in association with the temple. Templum has another sense in Latin: it is “a small piece of wood” (ibid.). This temple (as it is called in Modern English) is a small, wooden part in a loom. While the relationship between the two word-ideas is tenuous at best, this is our first clue as to the possible existence of a connection between writing and weaving. What we need is a physical connection between the two, in the body of a person. So who might be the weaver of texts, *tek (the Indo-European root of our word “text”), that get cut, *tem, in the templum?

Following a charming bit of doggerel by Ogden Nash, we might look for the identity of that beast in the form of the priest. In priest we find the Indo-European root *per (ibid. per1), and out flies a swarm of Modern English “P” and “F” words. It may be impossible to write a sentence in English without using a sense descended from *per. Here’s a sentence in which the italicized words are all derived from *per: This foremost of primal semantic items deserves our praise for being the parent (if not the emperor) of empiric pirates who’ve transported and ferried (with palanquins) so much meaning that we, the primitive, may have the protein of privilege, nay, a very paradise which we interpret as being furnished with precious veneers. But I digress. Maybe the priest is a little too high falutin to be doing the real work of word weaving.

Let’s meet the carver. In this person we begin to get to the root of the question, Are writing and weaving entwined because of some long ago work with words?

The Indo-European root of carve is thought to be *gerebh, “to scratch” (ibid.). Through the Germanic languages we get the English words crab, crayfish, kert (the mark left by a saw, an axe, or some such cutting implement, and reminding me of those “high raised spots” we found earlier in *wer), and carve. In Greek, *gerebh becomes graphein and gramma. Our word work is rewarded, for graphein means “to scratch, draw, write,” while gramma gives us all our -graph and -gram suffixed words, as well as grammar, graphite, paragraph, program, and that most mysterious of books, the Tetragrammaton.

Our ancient tribal temple scribe was a lithographer, from litho, “stone” plus gramma, “to write.” This lithographer is a carver in plain English, a *gerebh who cuts, *tem, the texts, *tek, in the temple, *tem. Might the carver inscribe a tablet while sitting at a table—both from Latin tabula—while working, *werg, in the templum? We get our English word inscription from Latin scribere, meaning “to write,” and descended from *gerebh just as is the Greek graphein. As we chase down the threads of this ancient metaphor, we can see how it all begins to weave together.

Did our carver go straight at the tablet and begin cutting letters freehand, or did that worker employ some sort of grid to control the heights of the letters? We sometimes call such an underlying grid structure the “warp and woof.” Like the pale blue lines on a sheet of graph (from *gerebh) paper, warp and woof are the threads arranged at right angles to each other on a weaver’s loom.

Now, warp and woof are descended from a form of Indo-European *wer, the same *wer as “raised spots,” and a homophone of the *wer from whence our precious “word.”

But is this relationship between the work of words and the work of weaving merely homophonic, or is there a deeper underlying warp and woof of metaphoric connection?

The ancient practices of tallying and marking, when organized as inscriptive writing, may well have taken cues from the even more ancient work of weaving. To carve an architectural (from the root *tek) inscription, a carver might well weave a grid, a net, a template (and there’s that *tem again!), to hang on the rock face in order to control the height and spacing of the letters. Here we begin to see the fabric of labor that connects writing-as-stone-carving to the ancient craft of weaving.

From what we know of the origins of writing, it shouldn’t surprise us that text-related words echo the themes of ancient work involving lots of repetition. The detail-oriented, repetitive making of word shapes and textile patterns both combine *tek, which gives us Greek tecne through to English technology, mixed up with *tem and the tempests of time in the temple. So from *tek we have text and textile, because you can read your weave and weave your words, all in a day’s work.

The real laborers, though, are a trio of Indo-European roots, *dhabh, *dhe, and *dheigh. The poetic possibility for play with meaning and sound among these three roots suggests to me the basis of a work song. Such a reconstructed song might be thought of as a topos, an intuitive “map” of a field of metaphor on which Indo-European women and men might have whistled the work day away. While this is all speculative on my part, and I certainly can’t speak about Indo-European musical proclivities, the potential for poetic speech to work wonders with these words seems clearly present. And the semantic interplay is truly intriguing.

dheigh to knead (clay, bread)
dhe to set, to put
dhabh to fit together

Storytelling and weaving both have something in common with kneading: this trio sings a song of “shaping.” *dheigh has the sense “to give form, shape.” Through the Germanic languages we get the lady who kneads our daily loaf, as well as dairy and dough. Dough, of course, is what you get in recompense for working your fingers to the bone. In Latin, *dheigh becomes figura and fingere, and English gets figure and fiction.

Fashions and fetishes stem from Latin facere, “to do or make,” which in turn descended from another of our trio, *dhe. This root also gives Latin its facies, and our face. Not only is face the home of the nose, but it is also the surface of the stone wall upon which we’ll carve our inscription. This piece of inscriptive writing might be a figure from a fiction or a few choice words from a song or poem. You can see how *dheigh and *dhe form a web of metaphor, giving us a linguistic field in which working for a living and creative desire can play together.

It’s through the Indo-European *dhabh that we finally meet the artist who can be weaver, writer, and carver through the connective metaphor of work. I trust you’ll not find me daft (our English inheritance from *dhabh) when I tell you that “he who fits together” is the meaning of Latin faber, from *dhabh. It’s the faber, the artisan, the fabricator, who kneads form and weaves the pattern of metaphor that is the warp and woof of this essay. And in faber I reveal my fabric, bumpy “raised spots” and all.

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