Lessons from Mandeville

June 8, 2011 Comments Off on Lessons from Mandeville

“How can you read that?” Simon asked me recently, as I was busy with my printed-out copy of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Actually, I like it a lot. Consider the following quote:

And wit well, that the realm of Arabia is a full great country, but therein is over-much desert. And no man may dwell there in that desert for default of water, for that land is all gravelly and full of sand. And it is dry and no thing fruitful, because that it hath no moisture; and therefore is there so much desert.

Don’t you like that? There’s just something so pleasing to me about the way that’s put. Anyway. I’m thoroughly enjoying the read, not least because the old language keeps triggering etymological breakthroughs. I’ve got two good ones so far.

“And then go men by desert unto the vale of Elim […] And from that valley is but a good journey to the Mount of Sinai.” A good journey. The whole book is about a journey, and I puzzled over this for a minute until I realized that “journey” must be related to the French “jour” (“day”)—so “journey” means a day’s worth of traveling! COOL.

“And at Fagamost is one of the principal havens of the sea that is in the world; and there arrive Christians and Saracens and men of all nations.” The German word Hafen means harbor, and suddenly I realized that “haven” must have originally meant harbor, too, and all that has survived is its figurative meaning.

Awesome, right? What I really like about these examples is that one comes from Latin and the other from German. I always like connecting English to its roots.


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