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Word of the Day: DUST

Word of the Day: DUST

An hour late, I know, but a good word for the whole season. “Remember, man, that thou art DUST,” said the priest to me today as I knelt at the prie-Dieu, “and unto DUST thou shalt return.” The good old gentleman said it in a kindly voice, audible throughout our chapel. I had never heard a priest saying that sentence over and over as, one by one, my colleagues and my students fell to their knees to receive the ashes on their foreheads.

It sure beats, “Have a nice day,” which is how I always heard the alternative, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” I have always believed the Gospel, and I do try to repent, but I am not daily reminded with force that I am DUST and that DUST is my destiny. Milton:

In the sweat of thy Face shalt thou eat Bread,
Till thou return unto the ground, for thou
Out of the ground wast taken, know thy Birth,
For DUST thou art, and shalt to DUST return.

The greatest poet in English — if we give Shakespeare the trophy for Best Playwright and make him leave the room so that somebody else can win an award — understood at that great moment that he dare not try to improve upon the language of Scripture.

Now, some of my friends here may remember that years ago I wrote a piece for First Things, revealing the features of the language of the New American Bible, NABBISH — a generally clunky, quotidian, awkwardly abstract melange of mistakes, missed opportunities, occluded images, bureaucratic memoranda, and treachery. NABBISH is often airily and prissily abstract, but when the translators got to this sentence, they decided to get rid of the DUST and make things rather scummy: we are to remember that we are DIRT. Doesn’t work; DIRT implies filth, and that is not the import of the passage. I asked my students about the connotative difference between DUST and DIRT, and — remember, these kids are at Thomas More College, so they actually learn about language — one of them immediately replied that DUST suggests something EPHEMERAL, and DIRT does not. Precisely.

The word DUST is interesting. I asked one of the boys who serves at the altar what that container is called wherein the incense burns. “That’s the THURIBLE,” he said, and when I asked why it was called that, somebody else said that it was where you put the THUS (genitive THURIS), the incense. Quite so. That THUS (Greek THYS) is, if I am not mistaken, related to THYMOS, soul, spirit, fire. The Indo European TH does not survive in Latin; it is often rendered as F (cf. Greek ERYTHROS, Latin RUFUS = “REDHEAD”). So the Latin cousin is simply FUMUS, SMOKE. The Indo European TH > Proto Germanic D; (Greek THYGATER, English DAUGHTER; Greek THORIS, English DOOR), so we have, as cognate with THYMOS and FUMUS, German DUNST, preserving the nasal consonant, and English DUST. So the words THYME, FUME, and DUST are all cousins.

On the icon of Mary in our chapel are the Greek abbreviations MP (that’s MU-RHO) and THETA-GAMMA. I asked the students what they thought the second one was, and they guessed THEOTOKOS, but that word doesn’t have a gamma in it, and THEOU, but again, no gamma. It must be THYGATER; Mary is, as Dante says, the one in whom the Son of God deigned to become the “creature of his creature,” daughter and mother both.

It is awfully nice, by the way, to teach at a place where everybody wants to learn everything you have to teach. I had — if it is not improper to say — a great Ash Wednesday.