In a Word

How we understand words over time can be extraordinarily telling. How we understand them across cultures equally insightful. Just what is in a word.

Take 3 examples, I was walking back from taking my young boy to school when down the street I saw a colleague from my teaching days. he was the chair of his department and had hired me to teach in that department. he was soon pushed out by a woman who was having an affair with a student. it became a prolonged lawsuit, he left. he then went through a nasty divorce forcing he and his wife to sell the house, and take apartments nearby, each with a room for their teen daughter. When I had seen him last he had just spent 6 weeks with 2 others sailing across the Atlantic on a small boat, a dream of mine, only to tell me he was with a nasty racist skipper who gave him no peace. He is a very congenial man, very tempered. As I said hi, he did not break a stride, lead on by his dog and the strong morning sun. as my head turned following him, crossing perpendicular to me, catching the light, I asked him as he passed, ‘how are you? how’s life.’ With out breaking a stride he said, ‘good. how’s yours?’ I found this phrasing quite beautifully odd, as if life is not yours exactly, but something given to you, and you from a certain vantage speak to it, live it, and if you can observe it. This so contrary to our sense that our lives are the life we make, we are our life we imagine.

I was watching a news piece on Macao, the Chinese gambling island, where the average stay is 5-7 hours. The Chinese government is trying to make it more than a gambling casino, adding swimming pools and theme parks, in an effort to turn the place into a longer destination site. At the close of the piece the reporter mentioned said, ‘though it may take some time to for this desire to become a reality, for now visitors to Macao are happy to come and test their fortune.’ To test their fortune, not to make a fortune, not to gamble money but to test the fortune they have, fortune as good luck, fortune as a state outside their being, something larger, something in the cosmos.

I’ve been reading the Adventures of Marco Polo, a must read, akin perhaps to Caesar’s, Conquest of Gaul, where in Polo describes, which he often does in the most succinct and descriptive manner, not unlike Caesar, the relations and customs of people he meets, the men and woman in the towns and provinces he is traveling through, or in Caesar’s case warring. In city after city he often tells us of the practices of the numerous soothsayers, astrologists, fortune tellers and augurs these cities have. The great Khan whose employ Polo was in had legions of them. Their role included reading lives and fortunes in the sense that the above usage of these words gave me. In my third example Polo uses the term ‘to wife’ not the wife as a role but a verb, a relation of action, to wife him. A man finds a wife to wife him.

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