A case of falling

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

“What goes up, must come down.” How often do we reflect on the profound wisdom contained in the six words of that hackneyed phrase (five in Spanish: Todo lo que sube, baja)?

caida-fall-sign-cartel-peligro-dangerIt turns out this most simple physical act—if indeed we can call what gravity does the “act” of the body that falls—permeates language in deep and unexpected ways.

“Chance” expresses luck, probability, risk, randomness, opportunity. It comes to us via French from Latin: cadentia was Vulgar Latin for “falling,” from the Latin verb cadere (Span. caer). We hear the cad- root in “cadence,” the rhythm or pulse of music, as with a walking or running pace, but also the way a musical composition or section resolves—how it “falls.” The same root yields “decadence” (Sp. decadencia) and “decay” (Sp. decaimiento is “a weakened or discouraged state”; in the sense of the breakdown or rotting of matter, the Spanish word would be descomposición).

Cadere’s participle form, casus (like “see” has the participle form “seen”), gives us “case”  (Span. caso), whose main sense is a situation requiring investigation and action (such as treatment in the medical realm, prosecution or defense in the legal). Span. acaso means “maybe, by chance.” Casus also gives “casual” for “unplanned, informal” (Spanish emphasizes randomness: casualmente is “by chance”). Another descendant of Lat. casus: war’s “casualties” for “killed and wounded,” though sometimes the term is understood to mean only those killed. More poetically, the casualties of war are expressed as “the fallen”—though, oddly, that phrase with its tone of nobility is generally not applied to civilian dead and wounded, who in most wars are more numerous.

That which happens to us, a bit archaically, “befalls” us. But this sense is alive and well in the latest iterations of language, though expressed differently: we speak of how an event “went down,” we wait and see “how things fall out” and hope they “fall into place.”  Span. cómo caen las fichas is something like “how the dice fall.” We “fall in” with friends, until we have a “falling out.” “Fall in” also means the incorporation of an individual or group,  such as soldiers, into a march, drill, or parade.

One “falls for” a trick; Spanish has caer en la trampa, “to fall into a trap.” Spanish, picturesquely, has caer como un chorlito, literally “to fall like a little bird.” But on figuring something out, on realizing the truth, uno cae en la cuenta—something like “to fall into awareness.”

Between entering the world at birth and our final fall (when one “drops dead,” cae muerto), the most dramatic event in most of our lives is that moment when we “fall in love” (Sp. enamorarse).

Once again we are face to face with the mysterious quality of the verb “to fall,” caer: it seems to name a voluntary action (like “to walk,” “to cook”), yet it really expresses the operation on a body of an exterior force—love, death, gravity.

It’s hard to fathom the importance of this notion to language and culture. In the Christian worldview, the original act of disobedience causes “the Fall” (la Caída) of Humanity into a state of sinfulness. Indeed, the Fall could be understood as the framework for all of human history.

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!

Pablo

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Dec. 11-17, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 210 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American 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).

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Word of a thousand disguises: the long, strange career of “freak”

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Words change across years and generations. They change spelling, sound, and especially meaning. But some follow such long and winding paths, so full of surprises, it can be incredible. One of these is the English word “freak.”

Circus poster photo, Ala., Walker Evans [1935] [AmMemory LOC id- fsa1998017988(slash)PP]

A key association of “freak” is with the circus, where it meant a person displayed due to some unusual (even hideous) characteristic such as extreme height, extra fingers, etc. This photo of a circus poster was taken in Alabama in 1935 by Walker Evans. (Source: Library of Congress, American Memory website)

Brave, fierce warrior.  From Old English, this sense dates to A.D. 900 or before.

Sudden fancy, whim.  This use was well established by the early 19th century. “A sudden freak seemed to have seized him” (Jane Austen). Spanish equivalents: capricho, locura. Not much used anymore. But freak out is—meaning a highly nervous or irrational reaction to a situation: “I need you to stay calm—don’t freak out on me.”

Enthusiast.  From the sense of “whim” arose that of “enthusiast.” It’s still common to hear, “She’s a health freak.” Spanish: Es una maniática de la salud.

Abnormal or extreme specimen. From “whim” came, too, the idea of the abnormal. A very tall person could be called “a freak” or “a freak of nature.” Around 1920 the term “circus freak” began to grow in use. It referred to an unfortunate person or animal fated to be exhibited in a circus, fair, or carnival. Spanish has fenómeno del circo. Typical attractions might be “The Bearded Lady” or “The Two-Headed Calf.”

Unusual, odd, rare. Similar to the previous sense, but distinct, is this broader one: as an adjective, “freak” can simply mean “unusual, odd, rare.” For instance, “a freak early-summer snowstorm” or “a freak occurrence.”

Drug user. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was commonplace to hear “freak” for an enthusiastic drug user, usually of marijuana or LSD.  It was also associated, in men, with beards and long hair. The combination “hippie freak” was common. An underground comic of the era was The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Nymphomaniac, hypersexual person. The drug-related sense began to give way to a new one. Rick James used it when he famously sang, “Super freak, the girl’s a super freak!” The meaning is that an individual is presumably insatiable in the sexual realm. Spanish has ninfómana and many slang terms, including loca (the feminine form of the adjective for “crazy”), much used in Argentina and Uruguay.

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the May 8-14, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 179 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American 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).

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