Posts Tagged ‘Middle Dutch’

Today, May 5, 2016, is the 160th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud. Coming immediately one day after Cinco de Mayo, I’m guessing most folks will be too partied out to go out on the town tonight to drink beer, smoke cigars, snort cocaine, and eat mushrooms. My own raucous celebrations are likely to include take-out food and a Brandy Alexander followed by watching Psycho and wondering if the movie would have turned out differently if only Norman Bates had had an analyst.The it’ll be off to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Freud spent an awful lot of his life talking about dreams. In fact, it took him five years to write his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams, starting in 1895 and seeing the published book in 1900. Here is expounds at length on how dreams are “the Royal Road to the Unconscious” where our deepest, darkest desires roil around like serpents in a pit. In a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid, Freud opened the book with the following quotation:

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo

Or for those of us who speak little or no Latin, “If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal regions.” And in the spirit of accuracy, “Acheronta movebo” is more literally translated as “I will move the Acheron,” which in Greek mythology is one of the rivers of the Underworld and Land of the Dead – the river of Woe [1].

A later reworking of Virgil’s phrase is found in Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the fallen angel Lucifer says,

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven

If you’ve read Paradise Lost, you’ll know that when Lucifer says this, he’s feeling pretty miserable because he’s been tossed out of Heaven and a little antsy towards God. A more modern interpretation of Lucifer’s angst can be seen in the 1966 movie Bedazzled starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, where Cook – as God – sits atop a post box while Moore – as Lucifer – walks round and around the box worshiping God until Moore says, “Here, I’m getting a bit bored with this. Can’t we change places?”

“That’s exactly how I felt,” says Cook. “I only wanted to be like him and have a few angels adoring me. He didn’t see it like that. Pride, he called it. The sin of pride. Flew into a monumental rage, chucked me out of heaven, gave me this miserable job. Just because I wanted to be loved!”

But before Lucifer became identified in Christian mythology as a fallen angel, the word was used to refer to the morning star, or the planet Venus as it rises in the sky at dawn. The Latin lūcifer is an adjective meaning “light-bringing” and by extension was used as the name for the morning star.

The first part of the word, lūc(i),- comes from lux meaning “light,” and the second part, -fer, is a suffix with the sense of carrying or bearing, as in transfer or crucifer. It comes from the verb ferre meaning “to bear or carry.” The lux element is also the source for the word lucid, meaning “clear” or “easy to understand, and for the common word light as in “bright” or “shining.”

We can stroll a little further back to the Greek word for the morning star or Venus, which is Phosphorus (ϕωσϕόρος ). This itself is a shortening of the phrase ϕωσϕόρος ἀστήρ, which means “bright star,” where phosphorus is an adjective, not a proper noun. The Greek phos (ϕῶς) means “light” and the suffix foros (ϕόρος ) means “to carry” or “to bear” – like the Latin -fer suffix just mentioned. The verb form of “to bear” was actually the Greek pherien (ϕέρειν) and this looks and sounds very similar to the Latin ferre.

When translators came to handle the word Phosphorus, they knew that is had the sense of “bearer of light” and so the Greek phos became the Latin lux and the Greek foros changed to Latin fer – hence Lucifer.

From all this, it should be apparent that the old myth that the word luck comes from Lucifer is wrong. Very wrong. Apart from the three letters L-U-C there’s no link between them. Luck is of Germanic stock with cognates such as Middle Dutch luc, Middle Low German lücke, Old Icelandic lukka, lykka, and Old Danish lukkæ. The ultimate Germanic base form is unknown but it’s certainly not from the same line as Lucifer.

[1] The five rivers of the Underworld are Acheron, Cocytus, Lethe, Phlegethon, and Styx. The first is the river of Woe, the second the river of Lamentation, the third the river of Forgetfulness, the fourth the river of Fire, and the Styx is the river of Dead Progressive Rock Bands.

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