A Word both Compelling and Unpopular
I encountered a new word today – gnomic.
The term first appears in 1815 to describe “a style of writing (or sometimes speech) characterized by pithy phrases, which are often terse to the point of mysteriousness.”
It appears to borrow from gnomes, tiny people who, when they are not shacking up with runaway princesses or making Shakespearean films, are known for burrowing about the garden with pointy red hats. Apparently, these earth spirits maintain an ASPCA membership and are known for rescuing trapped animals from the snares of men. Vegetarians may be pleased to hear that these 6-inch herbivores can live up to 400 years.
But don’t assume these little guys don’t like to party. They are a little too fond of fermented raspberries and spiced gin. Or when they really want to rock, out comes the “mead dew” (fermented honey).
Gnomes are pretty cagey around people, and fast, so we’re quite unlikely to interact with them. But when they do, apparently, they are jolly fellows.
The term “gnome” is itself derivative of an older Greek term, gnosis, which loosely translates to “knowledge” in the sense of intellect. So someone who possesses gnosis could be said to clever, and I suppose that the gnome, being thought to be rather clever himself, came to be known by a sort of idiomatic turn-of-phrase.
This makes sense when you consider that the first use of the term “gnome” is somewhere in the 1600’s. Those days were the high-water mark of the European Renaissance and most literate people were at least passingly familiar with ancient Greek.
But we have digressed…
Back to gnomic – the more contemporary adjectival form of the word. Like the gnome himself, the term ingeniously expresses the notion of some obscure and hard to see truth, which when you hear it cleverly conveys some timeless knowledge upon the hearer. This truth, perhaps like all truths, strikes us as mysterious.
Merriam-Webster ranks the term in the bottom 30% of English words. Like the gnomes, the term lurks cleverly beneath our eye level. But if discovered, like truth itself, brings about awakening. In this case, the awakening is etymological; for language is one of those areas where we feel ourselves connected with the Ages.
In this case, one common Greek term stretches out its tentacle out across the forest floor of time, burrowing its way from Athens to Untersberg to the gardens of Mrs. Montague and Mr. Capulet. In a finite world of mortality, it is a rare and limited glimpse of immortality (or something like it).
Consider how much of life – in this busy world of noise and technology and information overload – is actually a complete mystery to us. We think we are living out our lives with eyes open and a firm grasp around nature's throat. Yet, the world is spinning out of control in the minds of most men. The noise drowns our truth, technology's promise is always just around the corner, and we no longer see the relative value or utility of the information we encounter.
What if in the midst this world there really did lie a world of tiny men gallivanting -- quite literally -- right under our very gnoses. Think I’ve gone too far from reason? Joseph Campbell wrote, “If you are falling....dive.”
Increasingly this seems like sound advice. Dare we say, even, gnomic?