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Where the wild things are

As the Spring weather continues to be pleasant and mild, we spent last weekend camping in the wilderness.  So, our question was (and we really should take a supply of dictionaries with us) why is it a wilderness and not a "wildness"?  Where did that -ern- come from?

The surprising answer is that a wilderness is not simply a place where humans aren't; it is also a place where animals are.  A wilderness was originally a wild-deer-ness. To the Anglo-Saxons, deer meant simply "animal" and not the specific antlered creature we know by this name.  Their word for that animal was buck (or buc, or bucca). The Old English word wildern was equivalent to wilderness but was simply the plural of wildeor (i.e. "wild beast").

The use of deer as a generic term for "wild animal" survived into the 17th century when Shakespeare referred to "rats, mice and other such small deer" in his play King Lear. Ultimately, deer is believed to come from the Indo-European root *dhus- "to breathe" and is related to several Germanic words for "animal" including German tier but not, apparently, to the Greek ther "wild beast".  

This notion of breathing is also the basis of animal which literally means "breathing" (from Latin animus "breath").  Things got a confusing in the Middle Ages when scholars used animal as an adjective.  It was often difficult to know whether they meant "beast-like" or "breath-like".  Take the medical notion of "the animal spirit", for example.  This force was supposed to "animate" the body and to function by means of the brain and the nervous system.  According to this system, the lungs were a "vital" (from Latin vitalis "living"), not an "animal", organ despite the fact that animal means "breathing".

The concept of the "the animal spirit" was given a new lease on life in the 18th century when Franz Anton Mesmer decided that it obeyed physical laws similar to electro-magnetism.  He found that he could put people into trance states with passes of his hands.  This reminded him of the way a piece of iron becomes a magnet when stroked with another magnet so he assumed that there was an invisible fluid (which he called animal magnetism) passing from him to his subject.  We now know that this not the case but the strange trance state he discovered is still not fully understood.  These days, of course, we call it hypnosis - Greek for "putting to sleep".  Which reminds us... well, it is getting late.

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Last Updated 05/09/02 08:29 PM