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Etymology of Nectar, Research Paper Example

Pages: 3

Words: 693

Research Paper

I chose nectar, defined in Greek and Roman mythology as the drink of the gods, because it is a compound of two Indo-European roots and has a disputed, separate but parallel sense-relationship to ambrosia, which, defined again in mythological terms, is the food of the gods. So I will discuss it as well. Nectar is really two roots with two complex backgrounds, but in spite of their great age and distant geographical starting points, compared with other Indo-European roots of roughly equal age and distance they are practically unchanged as they are used today.

Nectar’s root is easy: just change the c to k: nek1. Easy too is the meaning of nek1: death. Nek1 itself has five forms which spawned words in both Latin and Greek that in turn made their way into common English usage. The very helpful Online Etymology Dictionary states that by the 1520s, English had created  pernicious effects  from the Latin root nex for death. From the same root by the 1660s (with the later assist of a misinterpretation by Dr. Samuel Johnson’s in his dictionary of 1755) we were fighting internecine wars. From the Latin nocēre (to hurt) we had, by the early 1400s, nuisances as we now know them; and by the mid 1400s nocent (the opposite of innocent); and by the 1590s nocuous (the opposite of innocuous). By the 1580s we had obnoxious brats from the Latin noxa for injury, hurt, and damage with liability; and by 1610 plenty of noxious fumes from the same root. From the Greek nekros for corpse, doctors were diagnosing necrosis (death of bodily tissue in a living person) by the 1660s, long after necromancy (the edgy craft of conferring with ghosts), which had been so named by about 1300. And finally, from the Greek nektar for the drink that made the gods immortal, by 1600 we had nectar, as in sweet liquid of flowers. Nectar’s suffix, –tar, is our jumping off point to the next Indo-European root form, terə.

Terə2  has a primary meaning of to cross over, overcome, and is the source of the “lowly” (Watkins 91) Latin preposition trāns, meaning across, beyond as found in transfigure. A “linguistic fossil,” it is a participle of terə2-, with traditions of crossing over. So when you drink nectar you are crossing over, overcoming, death: nek-tarə.

That same idea is expressed in a related Hittite verb root tarḫ (to overcome), a brief discussion of which I think is relevant here, as it shows how the Indo-European roots collect and organize themes from widely different languages, which then either change (or not), expand, or fade over time and location. So just as nectar conferred immortality, the above Hittite root did the same thing when it was combined with the name of a Hittite storm god named Tarḫunnaš (the Overcomer) who, in one retelling of the classic Indo-European myth of the slaying of a dragon, is temporarily defeated by a dragon named Illuyankas, who represents death, chaos, and dissolution. During every New Year festival, the monster overcame the Overcomer — who was restored during the following year.

Next, ambrosia is believed by some to be linked in its sense origins to nectar, although its Indo-European root, mer-2, meaning to rub away, harm, and possibly to die, is itself unrelated to either nek-1 or terə-2.  The American Heritage dictionary reports that ambrosia’s source is the Greek ambrotos, which breaks down to the Latin a [not] + the Greek mbrotos to brotos, the latter both meaning mortal. Both nectar and ambrosia share the mythology of being food or drink conferring immortality on their those who ate or drank them, yet both have roots with cognates associated with death. In addition to those death-words identified with nectar through nek-1 , ambrosia is identified with remorse, morbid, mortify, murder, mortgage (“dead pledge”), mortuary, and nightmare.

I have diagrammed the three connections as follows:

Three Roots

Works Cited

The American Heritage College Dictionary, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993. Print.

Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from: http://www.etymonline.com /index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=ambrosia&searchmode=none

Watkins, Calvert. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Print.

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