Every now and then, I find myself fixated on some strange labyrinth of English, a language that appears to have been designed by committee via conferences held with tin cans on strings. Every language has its strangenesses but this is the language I am most familiar with, so these are the things that make me wake up in the middle of the night, staring at the ceiling for a moment before grudgingly getting up to look something up in the OED. This often creates what I affectionately term a ‘dictionary spiral.’
When times are particularly dark, I’m forced to call my father, and the subsequent rambling conversation will meander through German and Middle English and perhaps take a quick dip into French and then around classics of Russian literature. My father and I have a mutual obsession with English’s foibles and the two of us can put an entire room to sleep arguing over the fine points of a dictionary entry or hauling book after book out of the library to chase something down, shoving dinner plates aside to make way for more important things.
Obviously my father gave me my love of language and is indirectly responsible, therefore, for the fact that you are reading this right now. Language is one place where my tendency to fixate on things with extreme intensity until I’ve wrung them dry is a shared obsession rather than a source of confusion.
I say all this because I have been thinking about the word ‘spring,’ which is, when you think about it for a moment, one that packs rather a punch. The leaders of the resistance over at Merriam-Webster have an extremely detailed entry on it and you can get sucked down a rabbit hole at the Online Etymology Dictionary as well, or give my dad a call if you have a couple of hours to spare. It’s used as an intransitive verb, as a noun, as a verb — so many meanings spring forth that when I sat down to map out all the different ways I use the word, I was actually kind of surprised. Lots of words like this do double or multiple duty in English, covering a wide array of events and occasions.
It was tracing these things back that got me a bit fixated on ‘spring,’ looking at when it entered English and how, and then trying to follow the tree of meanings that grew out from there. They’re all interwoven, some more obviously than others, though I think it’s reasonable to ask if maybe we could have come up with a couple of different options here? Language is so strange like this, that we sometimes have scores of words to refer to the same concept with various shades of meaning and dialectical inflections, and then we have all-purpose, one-size-fits-all numbers like ‘spring,’ which get stuck on bunches of things.
The spring equinox marks that turning point where the sun begins to reclaim the sky, and the stored energy beneath the earth starts to, well, spring forth, with plants putting out bold exploratory shoots and going into bloom. This is not just about equal day and equal night, but also about forward movement, and perhaps that’s what sent me along a midnight train to probing the myriad meanings of ‘spring,’ this notion that we are poised on a knife edge filled with potential.
Things are pretty bad. I don’t think that’s a particularly startling or controversial statement — I wake up each day wondering what is coming next, breaking my rule about no phones before breakfast as I reach for mine, desperate to know what happened in my sleep. Every day I feel like I’m facing some new frustration or ridiculousness, and at times I feel kind of powerless to do anything about it, like a bulb that hasn’t been divided in a while, all crammed together with no room to breathe, sending out a few feeble shoots making a desperate bid for freedom.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately, as have many of us, about what happens as society falls down around you. I wasn’t expecting it to be this quick. I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t think it would be this bad. I knew that Democrats were going to capitulate, but I thought perhaps they wouldn’t sink to the level of collaborating. It all happened so swiftly that it took my breath away. If you want to be cynical and say ‘I don’t know why you’re so shocked by this,’ fine, but I really thought better of America.
A lot of people have made comparisons between the current climate in the US and Germany in the mid-20th century, the steady erosion of the state under an authoritarian regime that actually happened quite quickly if you look at a timeline. People have said ‘you were warned’ and now people say ‘if you’ve ever wondered what you would have done in Germany in the 1930s, now is the time to find out.’ And I would like to say that I do know, I would like to triumphantly wave my arms and tell you all about it, but honestly, I don’t know if I can, and that both saddens and frightens me.
It’s so easy to look back retroactively and go ‘ah, they should have acted here.’ When it is happening to you, when you are the frog in the pot telling yourself that you can hop before the water boils, the problem is that you don’t understand that you are still in the pot in the first place. I don’t know what I as an individual can do even though I resist in every possible way because I feel it is my patriotic duty. I don’t know what people 50 or 100 years from now are going to say, looking back at this time, especially with the benefit of a huge wealth of written records, assuming they aren’t all cataclysmically disappeared. If I knew, I could probably tell you what we are supposed to do.
I think maybe I am supposed to tell you that the equinox is a sign that time marches on and things are cyclical and all life renews at the end, in some series of vague platitudes. But spring is about nature, and nature is cruel.
There are dead things buried under that soil.
Not everything lives to see spring.
Things go extinct.
Japan gives us cherry trees, and then we drop two nuclear bombs on them.
Image: Under the Cherry Tree, Cam Miller, Flickr