Etymology: Life is sticky… very, very sticky…

Awww.. hell… this is just too good to pass up.

So.. I was perusing my Duden (German equivalent to “Websters,” sort of..) Herkunftswoerterbuch (Etymological dictionary) this morning, and lo and behold, did I ever find an awesome discovery.  I happened to open up the book to the L’s and came upon the word “leben” which is German for “to live.”  This word comes from an indo-european root word *(s)lei- that meant “moist, slimy, sticky, remains stuck,” and the general consensus is that the word “leben” (or live in English for that matter) means “that which is left over.”

Other closely related words in German (and English) are Leim (Lime=chalky stuff (Calcium hydroxide or oxide) which was used in mortar), Leib (Life–in German Leib has been replaced by Leben to mean what we say as “life” but it is still of poetic way of saying life/bodily life as in the phrase “mit Leib und Seele”==with life and soul..), and Schleim (Slime–stuff that snails or ghosts leave on you).  In German, the root is also the second part of the verb bleiben, which means “to remain,” and which originally was written as beleiben.  Furthermore–two very important numbers have this root in them, namely eleven (elf in German) and twelve (zwoelf in German) which basically have the meaning “one left” and “two left” (over) after you’ve already used all of your fingers to count.

Before I go on to talk more about the interesting connection between Life, Lime, Slime and the word “left,” let us make sure to get this basic image in our head that life is all about hanging on and being sticky. Of course, the connections here between life and the physical sensations that often accompany the creation of life in sexual activities should be obvious and should be savored in all the rich imagery that you can conjure up (think about the close etymological/linguistic relationship between life and slime for a long, long time here…).  One could also ponder that the first life on the planet is always talked about coming out of the primordial ooze and that really, most of life really is just that sticky, slimey stuff that coats this big spinning rock travelling around a giant fusion reactor at breakneck speeds.

A bit more philosophically, however, it is interesting to me that our basic word for life really has to do about persisting and hanging on (sticking to!) whatever we can in this rather hostile environment.  Life is gritty.  It gets into crevices.  It is not a clean thing, but rather is, and has always been, a very very dirty affair.  The fact that our languages (well, Germanic languages) have encapsulated this connection so deep down in its structures is fascinating to me, even if I realize that it is rather arbitrary.  Latin for life, “vivo,” (vivacious, in vivo, etc.) for example, comes from an indo-european root *gwei, which is also the root of “bios” in Greek, and in English turned into quick and in German, keck which meant “lively, strong, fresh, firm, fast.”

Obviously, there are many different ways that one can try to root the essential and defining characteristics of life–perhaps it is in movment, or perhaps it is in persistence–but methinks it is wise to stop at times and contemplate just what life really is and how it–as a concept, as a practice, and as a reality–is rooted and expressed in our language.

I’m happy being a sticky bastard–whereas others may prefer to be quick-footed glib-monsters roaming the earth.  Take your pick and think about how this applies to the people you know and the relationships you hold dear….

Okay–one last addendum.  Above–where I was talking about eleven and twelve, I noted about how those words literally meant “one left” and “two left,” and as I moved over to the Oxford English Dictionary in my etymological perusals, I discovered that the English verb, to leave was also rooted in the same indo-european root *(s)lei that meant “to remain/sticky/etc..”

Now, it has always struck me as a bit odd that the word “leave” had two rather different meanings–i.e. “I leave you a piece of cake (=to give)” and “I’m leaving you forever, asshole” (=to depart).  Although you can sort of see how the two might be connected, I always assumed the second (=to depart) defintion was the primary one and that the other definition was somehow derived from it in special cases.

Actually, I found out today that it is totally the reverse.  Just as the root meaning that I’ve elaborated upon above would suggest, “to leave” actually originally meant “to leave behind/to be left over” and it was specifically a verb used in the context of the materials that were left over==bequeathed to the heirs of someone who died.  Thus, “I leave you this bookcase and my favorite leather Jacket” was the original usage of the verb, with the later meaning of “to depart” coming from an abstraction away from the process of what is causing the “leaving of goods”.. i.e. the “to depart” meaning came from someone extrapolating that dying involved “leaving” and dying was a kind of departure, so the word “to leave” became associated with a departure.

In any case, I find this interesting in that it shows both how plastic language is and how creative–in very dark and twisted ways–humans are.  I love both of these qualities and I keep them in mind always, but especially when people try to convince me that something has “always been true” and that language, words, and definitions are somehow a reliable method for arguing that a particular viewpoint is a “clear and eternal truth.”

Words are malleable constructions that we can use, change, and discard at our leisure, which makes them far cooler than giving them some sort of magical, eternal, or intrinsic power.

PS–let’s get sticky together. HAHA!


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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One Response to Etymology: Life is sticky… very, very sticky…

  1. Pingback: What can I say… | The Philosophy of NOM

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