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The Scrivener: From Nemesis To Sacred Groves

"Foremost among the related ancient words we still use, of course, is nemesis.,'' writes Brian Barratt, reporting the results of an engrossing dig into the stories behind words.

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) On Line Word of the Day brings some delightful surprises into my email In Box. For instance, I had never previously come across psithurisma. And that omission from my knowledge is excusable. The word, meaning whispering or a whispering noise, was used for only a short period during the 19th century. But I'm sure you will want to remember it and one day drop it into a conversation with your next-door neighbour.

Nemophilist is another fascinating word provided by Word of the Day. It was first used in the 1860s and is now rare. It denotes a person who is fond of woods and forests. My neighbour four doors down the crescent likes that one because it describes her very appropriately.

Nemophilia is a more common related word, but it does not denote the mental or emotional attitude of being a plant-lover. It is a particular genus of plant.

My interest in these words arises from research I did over ten years ago into the pagan religious use of sacred groves. The name of the Celtic god of sacred groves also began with nem-. She was Nemeton or Nemetona. Aqua Arnemetiae is the Roman name for a Celtic spa of the sacred grove at Buxton, Derbyshire. If you click through the photograph gallery here, you can see historical evidence of the ancient spa:

There are links in Willoughby, Nottinghamshire, to a similar sacred grove and in a more spectacular fashion at Lake Nemi in Italy. I hope this website is still open and functioning, for you to have a look:

Nemea was the place where in Greek myth Hercules slew the lion. It was a place of pasture and wooded groves and also the venue of the Nemean games, one of five gatherings which included the Olympic games. Nemea was a place of pasture and wooded groves. There are some interesting details here:

Foremost among the related ancient words we still use, of course, is nemesis. This comes straight from the Greek god of retribution and vengeance, Nemesis. There is a beautiful 1,800-year-old statue of her holding the Wheel of Fortune in The Louvre:

English, Greek and Latin are just three of many languages in what is called by scholars the Indo-European group. Another language in that group is the ancient language of India, Sanskrit. Related words include:
nama: name, also has a single reference to its use to mean pasture
namas: reverential salutation
namanya: worship, be humble, reverent
néma: circumference of wheel, boundary, limit, portion
(From A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, M.Monier-Williams, Oxford University Press 1899, Motilal Banarsidass 1976.)

Well, we have travelled round the ancient world and now we come forward to 1870 and to Jules Verne's novels 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' and 'Mysterious Island'. Does the name of Captain Nemo have any mystical meaning? Nemo is Latin for no, nothing, or nobody. Where that fits in, I have no idea. You'll have to do a bit of your own digging around into the always engrossing stories behind words.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2013


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