Either Life has been incredibly busy of late or I have been terribly lazy (idle, indolent, slothful, lurdan, recrayed ) because I just discovered that my last post was over a month ago, which is a sorry state of affairs when I’d always planned for weekly updates. I mean, how hard can it be to write something once a week? Well, apparently harder than I thought!
I was mortified! How could so many weeks slip past without me noticing? It’s bad enough that I’m plagued with the notion that I’m getting closer to being dead but to find that my tumbling towards becoming a footnote in the Great Dictionary in the Sky is accelerating just pumps up my existential angst to a new and frightening level.
Of course, when I say I am mortified, I am using the word in its most recent and common sense; deeply humiliated and embarrassed. Jonathan Swift used the word in this sense in his A Tale of the Tub (1710) where he says, “I have been told, Sir W. T. was sufficiently mortify’d at the Term.”
Prior to this sense, in the 15th century it was used to mean “affected by gangrene or necrosis” and this connotation was also around when Swift was writing, as we can see in Danial Defoe’s story, Captain Singleton (1720) in the sentence, “He cut off a great deal of mortified Flesh.” Fortunately for all of us, we turn realities into metaphor but not the other way around.
The OED defines its original adjectival use as being related to the body;
Of persons, or their actions, occupations, intentions, etc.: dead to sin or worldly desires; having the appetites and passions in subjection; prompted by a spirit of religious self-mortification; ascetic, unworldly.
The verb form, mortify, existed prior to this in the 14th century and meant to deprive of life, to kill, put to death, or to render insensible. It derives from the Anglo-Norman and Old French word, mortifier, which means “to cause to die.” The use of the verb as meaning “to cause embarrassment” can also be tracked to the 16th century – about a century before Swift’s use of it as an adjective. Mind you, just because we may not see a word in print doesn’t mean it isn’t being used orally, so the adjective form of the word will have existed much earlier than 1720.
We can track the word back to the post-classical Latin mortificare, to deprive of life, which in turn derives from the classical Latin mors meaning death. Digging even deeper we can hypothesize that mors has the same Indo-European root as morth, which means murder. And murder being pretty much a common feature of humanity, it’s not surprising that it pops up slightly modified in different languages e.g. Ancient Greek βροτός and Sanskrit mṛtyu. Russian morit means “to exterminate” and a previously covered word, moribund, comes from the same root.
Mortified has also been used in the past as a cookery term to refer to the process of tenderizing meat by hanging it up. Fynes Moryson (1566-1630), a Cambridge Fellow, spent four years traveling around Europe to gather information about the customs and mores of the different countries he visited, which resulted in a three-volume social commentary with the splendid title of An Itinerary: Containing His Ten Years Travel Through the Twelve Dominions of Germany, Bohemia, Switzerland, Netherland, Denmark, Poland, Italy, Turkey, France, England, Scotland and Ireland. In this, he makes the comment that, “The French alone delight in mortified meates.”
This connotation of the word is clearly not around today in our food-obsessed Western culture, where celebrity chefs are feted and lauded as something more than what they really are – cooks with an attitude . Still, it’s probably only a matter of time before some pretentious food snob decides to add “mortified pork” to the menu.
The other big use of mortified is in connection with religious ritual, where mortification is;
The action of mortifying the body, its appetites, etc.; the subjection or bringing under control of one’s appetites and passions by the practice of austere living, esp. by the self-infliction or voluntary toleration of bodily pain or discomfort.
Any religion worth its salt has to include some element of mortification or else it runs the risk of being seen as “soft.” Hair shirts, self-flogging, lopping off body parts, and fasting are some of the ways used to “kill off” bodily desires, all of which are wicked, evil, sinful, or simply wrong in the eyes of a religious body. As H.L. Mencken has so famously said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I’d be so bold as to suggest that the more fundamentalist a religion is, the greater its use of mortification.
And as a final note, if you’re one of those people who thinks their mortgage is a “dead weight,” you are closer to the etymological truth than you know! The gage element of mortgage means “a pledge,” so your mortgage could be called a “death pledge” – although not with the meaning that “I’ll be paying this damned thing until I die.” The “death” element comes from the idea that when you take out a loan to pay for something, the loan becomes “dead” to the creditor when it’s paid off in full. Otherwise, if you fail to pay it off, it the thing you bought becomes the property of the creditor and so becomes “dead” to you.
 indolent (1710), slothful (1400), recrayed (1340), lurdan (1330), idle (825).
 The elevation of cooks to the level of superstars is, for me, a wonderful example of the absurdity of life, where millions of people in the world are starving while others spend the GDP of a small country to eat a tiny plate of meat and vegetables given a fancy name by some self-important, self-obsessed, pan-wielding snob, whose only skill is to make a potato taste slightly better than some other cook’s spud, which is of zero relevance to a starving family who would be happy to eat the damn thing raw and covered in shit just to stay alive. Politics over.