Saturday, November 20, 2010

The F-Word, Redux

We received our first frost this morning, 20 November 2010. It was a light frost, arresting but a few errant Sycamore leaves deposited by the wind from the trees up the road, and the elongated hairy leaves of the Creeping Phlox. The frost was so light in fact that the dahlias remain steadfastly erect, sentinel-like and proud as they endure the moments before their inevitable fate.

Oddly, I did not resort to frantic movement, or blurt the decidedly more ribald F-word, but rather walked silently down the steps to take a closer look at this particular kind of beauty--and to ascertain the extent of the damage (verdict: minimal). The scene, even if it was but a microcosm of the larger garden-scape, was perfectly perfect. The diminutive ice crystals (which my unsophisticated camera found too small on which to focus and thus could not capture) announced themselves with characteristic understatement. It is not the ice crystal, I came to think, that necessarily bedazzles, but our immediate experience with and interpretation of the ice crystal, our viewing of it that attaches to it a particular meaning.

Think of the sight of the late-November ice crystal: our reaction is one of awe. Compare that to the sight of an early-season ice crystal (say, late September), or a March ice crystal: we curse, we get annoyed, we feel a sense of injustice. In the former instance, we think the appearance of ice or frost is "too early," we lament the premature curtailment of our opportunities in the garden, and we mourn the passing of a summer. In the latter instance, our annoyance stems from the fact that we intuit the appearance of ice crystals to be "too late" in the season, we worry about the shoots of the spring bulbs that have begun to rear their pretty little heads above the soil, and because, no doubt, we are exhausted of the cold and are ready for seasonal change.

As indicative of my own awe, I began to think about the etymology of the word "frost." The Old English term is a variant of the Common Teutonic forst, meaning strong and masculine, which is a derivative of the Old Teutonic words frusto, a form of freusan, meaning to freeze. But if freusan emerged from the Proto-Germanic freus, then freus can be traced back to the Proto Indo-European root preus, meaning both to freeze and to burn.

It may be odd to think that a single word was used to denote opposites, and some may be inclined to treat this as evidence for the intellectual simplicity of our ancestors. But such is, in my estimation, itself a superficial view. Preus seems to have captured that phenomenon that is characteristic of both processes. I think immediately of the term freezer-burn; furthermore, anyone who skies knows that cheeks and that protruding nose burn when exposed to the raw, frigid elements if not treated properly. And so we come full circle: our intellectual proclivities to complicate and analyze the most microscopic of tendencies, to create specific words to describe specific things, in the end draws us back to a realm of similarity and to etymological origin.

I then got ahead of myself, hoping to find a connection between freusan and Friesland. Here, I revealed the superficiality of my own mind, thinking that the similar sounds of freeze and freusan and Friesland would yield complicity in the same etymological drama. But I was wrong. What I found instead, though, delighted!

Friesland, the name of that northern province in the Netherlands--the people of whom are called Frisians--means "belonging to the tribe of the Frisii." That may not sound so delightful, but here is where the story reaches its zenith. The Latin Frisii generated the Old Frisian term frisle, meaning curly haired. The French adapted the word which became for them friser, meaning to curl. And in my simple mind I now know the origin of the term frizzy, as in "frizzy hair!"  

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