I was working on a book and wrote the word “tombstone.” Then I started to wonder why “tomb” rhymes with “gloom” and doesn’t sound like “Tom.”
According to Wiktionary, “tomb” was borrowed from Old French into Middle English, and since I understand neither Middle English spelling nor pronunciation, I don’t know why the o, but the silent b at the end makes some sense to me now; it’s probably the same kind of b as in “bomb,” which, when I think about it, really should sound the same as “boom!” The Ancient Greeks would agree with me; the word in their language that eventually became “bomb” meant “boom.”
Let’s go back to the semetary for a while, and look at some graves. These ones are very old, and date back to a time even before the Ancient Greeks, and to a word meaning “dig,” “scratch,” or “scrape.” If the dead could speak, we’d have the pleasure of hearing the language that gave rise to Greek, Latin, English, French, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, and many other languages.
The stones above our imagined graves, or the word for them anyway, comes from a word meaning “to stiffen,” which the people lying beneath would also have recognized. In some of its descendants, the meaning turned to “stone,” but in others, it took on meanings as diverse as “tallow,” “wall,” “pebble,” “pillar,” “hardened or pressed material,” and “it hardens.”
The other meaning of “grave,” that is, “serious” or “important,” seems to be unrelated, and came into English from Latin via French.
Thinking about all these bits of language reminds me of how we inhale the same oxygen molecules once breathed by famous people (and everyone else) in centuries gone by. I wonder what our x-number-of-greats-grandparents would have thought had they known that one day, millennia later, we’d be using words passed down the years, changed in both sound and meaning, but still with an unbroken chain of inheritance, borrowing, lending, and giving.
May they rest in peace, and live forever through their words.
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