Thursday, 28 July 2016

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul....

Poster in a shop window
on Holy Island
....Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,.
It is the causeway.

On the way over to Holy Island last Saturday with a touring party from my choir (at about ⅓ strength – but still a good 30 or 40) I wondered about the derivation of the word causeway.

Well, the way part is fairly obvious; as Etymonline says:

But why cause? The most obvious candidate for radicalism (and I use the word in what regular readers should recognize by now as either creative or wrong, depending on  point of view) – I mean 'being the root' (latin radix = root) – was causa, which gives Catalan, Italian  and Spanish cosa, Portuguese coisa and cousa, French chose ... (plus many other languages and dialects of course).

What might a cause, though, (or a thing, as in all those Romance examples) have to do with a road raised above regularly flooded shallows?  The answer is – not inappropriately  – NOTHING (no thing, geddit?).

There were two distinct meanings of the Latin word calx. Its primary meaning was the English heel – in fact  the word is still used in an anatomical context. But after a fairly promising start in the 18th century its use has became quite infrequent as this usage chart shows:

Word frequency chart here
The other word calx (it's a separate headword in my (19th-century) Latin dictionary (there's a picture of a sadly mistreated end-paper here), although in that Collins entry there's only one headword and the order of priority is  reversed – with heel coming last) is a pebble, or a playing piece in a board game such as draughts/checkers, or limestone. In Vulgar Latin a via calciata was a paved road. This gave rise to the old North French cauciée and ultimately to the Modern French chaussée. On the way, it spawned the Middle English cauceweye, meaning a raised road.

But in Late Latin  there was a new verb, calciare, with the meaning "trample down with the heels", derived from the genitive of calx  –  calcis.  And it's not clear to me whether what was trampled down for a causeway had to be limestone.

Returning to Holy Island, though, the presence of many quarries and kilns in Northumbria indicates a long-standing industry based on limestone. So that causeway may have been both made of limestone and trampled down with the heels. I suspect (OK, it's more of a WAG, or Wild-Assed Guess) that the two meanings of words derived ultimately from Latin calx became inextricably linked  in a way  that is not dissimilar to The R That Came From Nowhere in the word for ink derived from the Greek word borrowed into Latin as encaustum that  just happened to be used in monasteries – in chiostro ("in cloisters"). I wrote at more length about  this supposed derivation here.

On 23 July we sang at St Mary's in Holy Island   – which is linked to the mainland by  a causeway – some wonderful music, and were thanked and congratulated by some American pilgrims, who were walking St Oswald's Way ("Good job!" was the way one of their number put it pumping my hand as though it were a hand-pump). And one of the pieces was Felix Mendelssohn's Verleih uns Frieden, the music for which reminded  me, sometimes, of the more-or-less contemporary hymn "O come and Mourn with Me Awhile" written by Frederick William Faber in 1849. But the tune I remember from a misspent youth isn't the one most readily thrown up by Google searches (St Cross), and things need doing in the garden, so I'll have to save any further investigation/discussion for an update.


PS And here's a clue:
Optimise with heart of new arrangement  to constitute a prime example.  (9)

Update 2016.07.30.12:50 – Added PPS.
While in Holy Island, I (and many other choir members) spent some  time here. Among other slips, whereby hangs a tail, I dropped my National Trust card. This morning I opened an envelope sent by the landlord returning my card. Do stop there if you're passing.

Update 2016.07.30.18:10 – Added clarification in blue.

Update 2016.08.11.20:30 – Added clarification in red (to account for an otherwise unaccountable gear-change).

Update 2017.06.02.14:15 –The answer to that crossword clue (at last ;-): EPITOMISE

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