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The Scrivener: Nimble Greetings

With the intellectual nimbleness of a born wordsman Brian Barratt explores the family tree of the word "nimble''.

A simple word can sometimes have a complex family tree and some unusual cousins.

In Old English, over 1,000 years ago, the forerunner of nimble meant quick to learn. By about 300 years later, it meant agile, quick in motion, which is the way we now use it.

The main part of the word, nim, meant to take, and is found tucked away in other old words. For instance, in line 1808 of the Old English saga Beowulf, written in about 725:
heht his sweord niman ordered his sword [to be] seized

It’s also in line 499 of Layamon’s Brüt, written in about 1225:
Al heora god we sculen nimen All their goods we shall take

These terms have cousins in ancient Greek nemein, deal out, and nomos, pasture (land dealt out for grazing purposes).

From this ancient history, related words in English include:

nemesis, distributing judgement
economy, management, stewardship
nomad, a wanderer through pastures
astronomy, literally ‘star arranging’.

Scholars have worked out that all these developed from an Indo-European root nem-. This had the broad meaning of to assign, allot, take.

And now for the real surprise. Another word from the same root is the Sanskrit namas, to bow, submit, pay respects. Sanskrit is an ancient language used in Hindu scriptures and worship. One of its forerunners was Pali, which is still the sacred language used by Buddhists. In Pali, namati means to bend or to share out.

The common Indian greeting namaste comes from namas te, I bow to you. This is in the Hindi language, which comes from Sanskrit. It became more widely known in the 1940s, when Nehru’s namaste greeting, spoken with palms held together in front of the chest or face in the traditional manner, was almost as recognisable as Churchill’s V for Victory gesture.

During the Athens Olympics, a Thai weightlifter started and concluded her attempts at the clean and jerk by greeting the audience with a namaste gesture, her hands raised to her chest and her palms held together. But for some people, the gesture and the word have a deeper meaning than a simple greeting.

The well-known Bhagavad Gita is a small section of a huge and ancient religious text of Hinduism, Mahabharata, literally 'the great history of the Bharata people'. In the Gita, we read how the warrior Arjuna began to realise that his charioteer, Krishna, was the Blessed Lord. When Arjuna questioned the killing going on all round them, on both sides, Krishna explained that the bodies might be killed but the souls live on, so let’s get on with it.

In verse 11:39, Arjuna hailed Krishna with:
Namo namas te’stu sahsara-krtvah
Punas ca bhuyo pi namo namas te

I offer my respects to you, a thousand times,
Again and again I offer my respects to you.
Going back to the word we started with, nimble, it's interesting to see how William Shakespeare used it. Here are a few examples. Relish the words of the master!

...You have nimble wit. ...

They say this town is full of cozenage;[cheating, fraud]
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,

...You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames
Into her scornful eyes! Infect her beauty,
You fen-suck'd fogs, drawn
by the pow'rful sun,
To fall and blast her pride!

...Had she been light, like you,
Of such a merry, nimble, stirring spirit,
She might 'a been a grandam ere she died.

...You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.

...Love's heralds should be thoughts,
Which ten times faster glide than the sun's beams
Driving back shadows over low'ring hills.
Therefore do nimble-pinion'd doves draw Love,
And therefore hath the wind-swift Cupid wings.

So with ever nimble minds, let's continue to enjoy exploring the family trees of some of the deceptively simple words in our rich language.

© Copyright 2004, 2007, 2011 Brian Barratt


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