Becoming a Word

At family events, when there was too much swirling activity and raised voices, too many bodies bumping up against each other in the kitchen, way too many kids spinning out of control, my grandmother would say, in her thick accent, that the roiling, rambunctious scene was a “kesselgarten.” Growing up, I always thought that this was either a Yiddish term of misty and indefinite origin, or another of those Yiddish/Russian/Ukraine/shtetl hybrid things that she often uttered, to the confusion of even her husband, who had been raised in the same part of the world but in the city, not the countryside. Then, sometime later, I learned that this word, “kesselgarten,” actually was derived from Castle Garden, the place in New York where immigrants disembarked in the United States before Ellis Island became that intake destination. So, the turmoil, emotions and energy of Castle Garden were boiled down to an essence and converted from a specific place to a generalized generic term, which in turn bestowed a newly applied placeness to whichever location it was now used to describe. Castle Garden, long forgotten, had become “kesselgarten,” a sort of portmanteau word with a life of its own. (In fact, “kesselgarten” must have already attained that separate status even by the time my grandmother emigrated here, because she never set foot in Castle Garden, having landed somewhere else. And, interestingly, there never was a word or phrase like this generated by the experience of being in Ellis Island.)

There are locations so full of placeness that they have become, over time, terms of specific meaning that are long divorced from connection with their geographical origin but which have retained, have even heightened, the inherent characteristic that made those locations memorable.

Consider: How often is the word “bedlam” used to describe a mass, unorganized, unruly gathering or celebration? How many know that the origin of this handy, weighted word  (perhaps overused by sportscasters to describe fan hysteria) comes from a place, Bedlam, once a notorious institution for the insane in London. The awful, palpable placeness of Bedlam not only overcame any link to its own origin – it is itself a corruption of Bethlehem, a much more benign association – but became a much-used, standalone noun and adjective.

Frankly, not too many other real places that have become lower-case descriptors come to mind – not in all the centuries that we humans have been giving names to locations and talking and writing about them. There’s Waterloo – Napoleon’s place of failure – that now is used to denote anyone’s downfall, but it’s hard to think of other such place-based incidents that have taken the same path. Watergate has not become a noun, verb or adjective, but the latter part of it – “gate” – is now attached by eager-to-pigeonhole media as a convenient suffix to instantly denote a scandal: Irangate, Bonusgate, Travelgate and so on. 

More often, but not all that more often, mythology is the source, but in the strangest of ways: People create a fictional place needed to exist to satisfy the needs of their belief system – Heaven and Hell and Eden, in the Judeo-Christian canon, for example, or Paradise – then, over time, that fabricated reality becomes a generalized noun or adjective, so that “heavenly” has little to do with Heaven, but rather with something very nice, and “hellish” can mean simply horrific, not directly related to the place that Satan is said to rule. Scylla and Charybdis, of Greek mythology, are the original “between a rock and a hard place,” but, again, there are not many other such places-become-words. Indeed, often it is an object in a place that takes on new lexicon life, not the place itself. Troy has no meaning beyond itself; Trojan horse does, though.

Why do some places become immortalized as dictionary entries and others not? Often, perhaps usually, the ones that do make it are places with extreme pleasurable or painful placeness – but Hiroshima has not, nor has Ground Zero, Gettysburg or Chernobyl. Killing Fields has, to some extent, but what others? This transmigration also seems to need a personalized aspect – the victims of Bedlam, the individual lost in Castle Garden – but, there, too, it is not widely applied. The most personalized place of universal and symbolic grief and myth, Calvary, has no application beyond its geographical existence. Obviously, there is no forcing of this sort of thing, no merchandising or packaging it, to make it so. It either happens or it doesn’t. Frankly, the why this/not that defies explanation, possibly even analysis.

What does seem clear, though, is that our current world is home to almost no places with undeniable placeness sufficient to become that part of our collective mythology or cultural ethos that demands inclusion into our language to explain what it is we are and do. We seem to live in places that do not reflect us, or us them; they are not places that tap into our souls or dreams, so that by their mere mention, in a kind of shorthand, we understand the world and each other more and better. It’s a paucity of language, it’s a bankruptcy of placeness, it’s a continuing sign of the decay of our ability to frame and tell stories and create meaningful conventions. When everything and everywhere is so accessible and commonplace and similar, nothing is colorful, nowhere signifies and metaphor dies.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Random, Words Words Words

One response to “Becoming a Word

  1. mysending

    This is a fascinating entry to what should be a very big discussion. Thank you!

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