Tonight, sometime around midnight, will mark the 300th anniversary of… well… how shall I put it?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Tonight marks an extraordinary anniversary… of an extremely ordinary event, one that occurs millions of times a day around the world. The kind of event that has never (as far as I know) been commemorated in a public way. So I seriously doubt you will hear of this anniversary anywhere else besides this page. And I happened to learn about it by sheer accident last night, 24 hours ahead of the big day.

When Laurence Sterne’s hilarious, bawdy, and yet (why “yet”?!!) philosophical novel Tristram Shandy first came out in 1759, it was like an earthquake through the English literary world, and ultimately shook literature around the globe. Even today, the book is unclassifiable, still a challenge to readers, and still an adventure to read–much as it must have been for Sterne to write.

Tristram Shandy coverThe key to the novel might well be the phrase “That reminds me…”  Among other things, and perhaps underlying all of its other qualities, Tristram Shandy is a meditation on the human mind’s penchant for associations. Looked at in a certain light, the novel is one long series of interruptions to the telling of a story… a ceaseless chain of digressions.

Last night I happened to sit down and re-read the first few pages of the book. In it, “Shandy,” the narrator, recounts how orderly his father was in his habits. Among the regularities the old man followed scrupulously was winding a clock: He “had made it a rule for many years of his life,–on the first Sunday night of every month throughout the whole year,–as certain as ever the Sunday night came,–to wind up a large house-clock which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands.”

And, it seems, Shandy’s father had over time also “gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.” And, as a result of this habit of his father’s, Shandy tells us that his “poor mother could never hear the said clock wound up,–but the thoughts of some other things unavoidably popped into her head…”

One of those “little family concernments” of the old man’s turned out to be of great import to Shandy. For, you see, he tells us: “I was begot in the night, betwixt the first Sunday and the first Monday in the month of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighteen.” Shandy then goes on to tell us readers how it is that he knows for certain that that was, indeed, the night.

So there you have it: a major literary anniversary. A three hundredth anniversary! Not Sterne’s birthday (that was Nov. 24, 1713); not the anniversary of the book’s publication; not even the birthday of the character, Tristram Shandy.

But rather, the date on which little Tristram was conceived.

And that, dear readers, reminds me of a story… Which will have to wait till another time.

To read Tristram Shandy free online, visit the Project Gutenberg page for the book at:





Carry that weight

Enlace para español/Link for Spanish

Dear reader:

The languages we live in are very old, older than the earliest ancestors most of us can name.   Yet most of our words are older still. Remember: go back more than 500 years and you will not find an English (or a Spanish) language you can understand—but for many of the words we use, there is a lineage that goes back not a few hundred years, but thousands.

Mujer llevando canasta

What this woman is doing is the basis for one of the most powerful word roots in all of human language.

What is the first thing we ever do in the world? Actually, it’s less something we do than something done for us, the first thing done for us as separate beings, making all else possible: After nine months of giving us the very marrow of their bones,  our mothers “bear” us into the world: we are “born.” Old Engl. beran (to bear, bring, produce, endure) could trace its lineage back to Proto-Indo-European *bher-.

In ancient Greek (another Indo-European descendant), pherein is “to carry” or “to bear”—the root of “fer” in “transfer.” Carry a word over from one place (meaning) to another: meta + pherein yields “metaphor.”

It’s the same root shared by the fer element in words like ferriferous and auriferous, iron-bearing, gold-bearing.

Latin turned ph into p and we got the -port- in “transport” (to carry across), “import” (to bring in), to “comport” (carry) oneself—and so on, and on.

Spanish portar is to bear—portar arma is to be packing, to carry a weapon. An aircraft carrier is a portaaviones, a case for carrying papers a portafolios (portfolio), etc.

To bear or endure a burden, is to “support it”—soportar, in Spanish. To “suffer,” sufrir, is the same root.

The name of Christopher, the Christian saint and friend to travellers, comes from Church Greek khristophoros, literally Christ (Khristos) + bearing (phoros), as the saint is fused with medieval legend of a benevolent giant who helped travellers across rivers.

From this sublime meaning to such a humble object as a “wheelbarrow” (a “barrow” is for carrying, from that Old Engl. beran); the essential figure in poetry and language itself ( “metaphor”); and reaching back to the very moment of our “birth”: what unfathomable mystery and power in this word, in all its vast reach and its countless forms!

Good words!  ¡Buenas palabras!

Pablo J. Davis

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Nov. 20-26, 2015 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 157 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (Aamerican Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).

Portar y soportar

Link for English/Enlace para inglés

Querida lectora o lector:

Las lenguas que habitamos son muy antiguas, se remontan a un pasado anterior a los antepasados más remotos que podemos nombrar. La mayoría de nuestras palabras son más viejas todavía. Recordemos que el español o el inglés de hace más de 500 años, no nos es comprensible—pero, en el caso de muchas de las palabras que usamos, su antigüedad no se mide en varios siglos, sino en miles de años. 

Mujer llevando canasta

Lo que hace esta mujer, dio  lugar a una de las raíces más poderosas en todo el lenguaje humano.

Lo primero que hacemos en el mundo, nacer, se dice to be born en inglés. En realidad, es algo que hacen por nosotros, algo que hace posible todo lo demás: después de darnos hasta la médula de sus huesos por nueve meses, nuestras madres nos dan a luz, nos paren: en inglés, they bear us. Esa voz bear proviene del inglés antiguo, beran (soportar, traer, producir, sufrir), de la raíz proto-indoeuropea *bher-.

En griego antiguo (que también desciende del indoeuropeo), pherein es “portar”, la raíz del elemento fer en transferir. Llevar una palabra de un lugar (o significado) a otro: meta + pherein nos da “metáfora”.

Es la misma raíz del elemento fer en palabras como ferrífero y aurífero, deposítos que contienen o “portan” hierro y oro, respectivamente.

En latín, el sonido de ph (f) devino p: aparecíó el elemento -port- que nos da transportar (llevar a través de), importar (traer desde fuera), comportarse (la conducta, o porte, de uno), y así sucesivamente.

De ahí “portaaviones” y “portafolios” y sinnúmero de voces afines. “Portar armas” es bear arms.

“Soportar” una carga (support, en inglés) comparte esta misma raíz, como lo hace su pariente muy cercana “sufrir” (suffer).

El nombre de San Cristóbal, patrono de los viajeros, en griego eclesiástico era khristóphoros, “portador de Cristo”—el santo se fusiona con la leyenda medieval del gigante benévolo que ayudaba a los viajeros a cruzar los ríos.

Desde un sentido tan sublime, hasta el humilde wheelbarrow (carretilla; el elemento barrow es un dispositivo para trasladar cargas, wheel es por la rueda), pasando por la figura esencial de la poesía y del lenguaje mismo (metáfora) y remontándonos a nuestro birth (nacimiento): ¡en sus incontables formas, qué palabra llena de misterio y poder!

Good words!  ¡Buenas palabras!

Pablo J. Davis

Una versión de este ensayo apareció originalmente en la edición del 20 al 26 de noviembre 2015 de La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), como la entrega número 157 de la columna semanal bilingüe “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT es Traductor Certificado por la ATA (American Translators Association), inglés>español, e Intérprete Certificado por los Tribunales del Estado de Tennessee inglés<>español, además de entrenador en los campos de la traducción, interpretación y competencia transcultural. 

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