Equal, Dual, and Otherwise

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about words with dual meanings. Not those double entendres that make life so deliciously naughty so much of the time, but those adorable, frustrating, ravaging, delightful English words that for some quixotic reason have decided that they need to have two meanings, or sometimes three or four, just for kicks: a simple life in which one word stands for one thing only is not for the English language, not with so much ground to cover, these words declare.

Like spring, which has deep and snarled roots that the Online Etymology Dictionary can really explain better than I can:

Old English springan “to leap, burst forth, fly up; spread, grow,” (class III strong verb; past tense sprang, past participle sprungen), from Proto-Germanic *sprengan(cf. Old Norse, Old Frisian springa, Middle Dutch springhen, Dutch Related: springen, Old Saxon and Old High German springan, German springen), from PIE*sprengh-, nasalized form of root *spergh- “to move, hasten, spring” (cf. Sanskrit sprhayati “desires eagerly,” Greek sperkhesthai “to hurry”).

And yet, this tiny word has sprung (forgive me) in so many directions, to mean so many different things. It is the place where water bubbles up, and you can tap into it to have a source of fresh, sweet drinking water that springs from deep beneath the crust of the earth; we had a spring in Elk when I was a child, and I remember going out to check the pumphouse sometimes, that distinctive woodsy smell of moss and dead leaves underfoot, the growing moisture as you approached the spring until finally you were forced to walk on duckboards for the remaining few feet.

But it’s also that tiny coiled wire that lies deep within so many things, coiled tension keeping them in constant action. The trap that waits to be sprung, the watch with the broken spring, the spring on the screen door that groans every time you push the door open; I remember how the door at Goody’s used to moan when my father and I left after having our kiddie burgers and milkshakes. We always sat at the bar, on the high vinyl stools, and the waitress knew us well enough that she would put our order in when she saw us come in the door, shoes scuffing on the black and white tiled floor. When we left and the door sluggishly snapped back into place behind it, I could hear the wood slapping in the frame, glunk glunk. 

Springing is a thing you do, too, leaping for joy, or twisting and rocketing up into the air; baby goats, in particular, are fond of this activity, looking like they are going to launch into the stratosphere with each new leap. I remember watching them gambol on the hills of Khios, seeing their tiny legs stiffen and flex as they powered themselves up for another leap through the coarse grass, the Aegean glittering behind them like broken glass.

It is also the thing which is released, when the tension becomes unbearable or someone lets go, and whatever it is that has been held too tight is finally free to fly up, tasting freedom, deciding on its own whether it will flutter back down or take off for parts unknown. It is the terrified rabbit held in the paws of the cat who springs away when the cat is distracted, it is the stack of books that explodes out of its paper bag when the pressure gets to be too much. I remember pulling a tree branch, as a small child on some mission of my own, and being shocked and appalled by the way it smacked me in retaliation when I let go.

Oh yes but also, spring is the season, that filled with things that spring up, the bulbs that push their way through the soil and the plants slowly unfurling, the birds appearing in the trees and the greenery pushing its way through the brown (or white) of winter. It is the season when everything seems like it is opening up to new possibilities: not summer, when everything is dry and there is something grim and determined about the whole affair, nor fall, which warns of shorter, colder days, nor even winter, which sinks its vicious claws deep into you and toys with you, simply because it can.

Spring is its own distinctive season, promising rains but also sun, warm, lengthening, languid days in pools of light that grow ever larger as the sun stops loafing along the southern horizon and begins grudgingly creeping to the north, promising to stay a little while, to linger and give us something more than the pallid days of winter.

So many things, in such a tiny word! Spring, springing, sprung, sprang. It’s like those fragile and small flowers that shyly peek up but manage to fill the air with fragrance, making you feel like you’ve been dunked into a vat of it, forcing you to follow your nose until you find them, hiding under a shady leaf or quietly blooming near the edge of a field. You marvel that something so seemingly insignificant can contain so much, can hold entire worlds inside the confines of its petals, and words are like that too, filling the air with their sweetness and constantly blooming again and reseeding themselves and drifting around the yard so that you never know when and where to expect them next.