Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Bonne Journée: An Etymological Musing on Time

"HAVE A NICE DAY!" Is all that the clerk at the local fruiterie is really telling me as I walk into the sunlight carrying my bags, but my mind is wandering already. . . journée does sound quite a bit like journey, for the simple reason that the English word for a trip, with connotations of personal growth and development, comes from the very same French word.

This having been noted, I wonder to myself, walking down the street, at how interesting it is that this little word that conjures up images of so many remarkable things to me, ships and aeroplanes, learning, starting at one place and reaching another with many experiences along the way, some enlightening, some disappointing, some exciting, is a word that measures time. First came the Latin diurnus, "of the day
", then the Old French journée, "a day's work or travel". In the 1700's, journey still referred to "the travel of a day", and the term Journeyman, "one who works by day" retains the original French meaning of the word. . . but in this age, when the average person in general, and the average native English-speaker in particular, seems to want everything to happen ridiculously quickly, when we do not always remember the value of one day of our lives, I imagine that we also do not think that becoming a master of something, doing something truly great, requires the build-up of the work of many days.

It is perhaps hardly thrilling to think of one's travels in this light, but of course, the very term travel is itself even less appealing. . . the word having come from
travailler, "to toil or labor", French derived from the Latin trepalium, an instrument of torture, one can safely say that our modern notions about going from point A to point B must be somewhat different from those of the 12th Century. The German verbs associated with travel, reisen and fahren, were once related to war-making and walking respectively, but neither term has come into English to mean "travel". Odyssey and voyage are far less ominous, of course, but we speak more often of our "journeys" or "travels" or of life as a "journey" than we do of "voyages" and "odysseys", which are typically left to the characters of epics and myths. Could it be because many of us are busy complaining that we are toiling too much to be having great adventures, thinking about the "going away" aspect of a trip more than the arrival?

. . . And with that, my verbal odyssey is complete and I am at my front door yet again, bags of groceries in hand, thinking about what it really means to have a nice day. . .

No comments: