Verbal Energy

Words with a watery background

The Mississippi's historic highs remind the Monitor's language columnist how rich our vocabulary is in metaphors for inundation.

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The ancients believed there were four elements: air, fire, earth, and water. The last of these has been particularly in thought of late as floods have overwhelmed people along the Mississippi and its tributaries.

I was the recipient of an unusual travelogue the other day: A colleague en route back to the East Coast from California pinged me at 36,000 feet over the country's waterlogged midsection.

His in-flight Wi-Fi connection let us trade instant messages to fill each other in on loose ends. In between the professional back and forth, I got a report of rivers far wider than they should be and countless acres of farmland under water.

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Floods are a recurrent theme of human history. Humanity has had a love-hate relationship with rivers over time. When the relationship is working well, we get irrigation and transportation. Learning to work with rivers is a fundamental process of development – think of the Egyptians and their great civilization on the Nile. But when things aren't going well we can get death and destruction.

No wonder our language is filled with flood metaphors. Lately I've found a spate of familiar words with watery backgrounds. Indeed spate is one of them. It's often used in journalism to describe "a lot" of something, or a string of episodes – "a spate of robberies" in a neighborhood, for instance.

Spate is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, an early 15th-century word, originally used in Scotland and northern England and meaning "a sudden flood, especially one caused by heavy rains or a snowmelt."

Our basic English word is flood, of course; then there's deluge and the Latin-derived inundation, built on the Latin word for "wave."

These words have long been used figuratively as well as literally. In fact, sometimes the figurative uses got out ahead of the literal ones. Floodgate used in connection with tears or rain goes back to the 13th century. The literal meaning didn't appear until the 15th century. This suggests that engineering developments lagged behind nature and human emotions.

To be "surrounded" is literally to be flooded – the word comes from the Latin superundare, related to inundation. Debacle, from French, originally referred to the breaking up of river ice. Later this meaning was extended to the violent flood that often accompanies such a breakup.

Flood myths appear in cultures around the world. The story of Noah and the ark appears in the Bible – and also gets great play in the Quran. The Noachian flood has counterparts in Greek and Hindu civilizations, among others, as well as the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.

A recurring theme here is a deity seeking to destroy civilization in order to punish wickedness. Interestingly, many flood terms have a suggestion of washing or cleansing. Alluvial, as in the alluvial plains of geography classes, refers to places that are "washed" with river water. Deluge, though it came into English from French, shares a common Latin ancestor with alluvial: lavere, meaning "to wash."

Even the grim-sounding cataclysm, is a Greek-derived word meaning literally a flood or deluge – a washing something down. Not all washing is necessarily cleansing, as riverside communities are being reminded. But there's a metaphor of renewal there, of second chance. I'll stick with that until the waters recede.

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