The Creation of Create

This month’s video, part of the #CreateICG collaboration, is all about the word “Create”:

The spark of the idea of course came from those two base senses of the roots of the word create, “to grow” and “to cause to grow” or thus “to create”, both stemming from the Proto-Indo-European root *ker- “to grow”. This seemed to be an apt way of thinking about the creative process, as both an active act of intentional creation and an organic process of growing. As we briefly touched on in the video, this etymology also brought up the related word creature, obviously meaning in its base sense “created thing”, which got us wondering if it was as a consequence of the novel Frankenstein and the movies it spawned that creature could be used in the sense of “monster”, especially under the influence of the phrase creature feature. Most of the dictionaries I checked didn’t list this sense, though the phrase creature feature is sometimes mentioned, and there is the sense of “a being of anomalous or uncertain aspect or nature” referring to creatures of fantasy or creatures from outer space. We did a quick Twitter poll and found that in British English the word creature was certainly not strongly associated with the meaning “monster”, with many citing the phrase “all creatures great and small” as a particular influence (as well as the TV series Creature Comforts) , but the results, though still negative were somewhat more mixed in North American and world English. So it would seem we might need to do a little more digging here. If you have any thoughts we’d be grateful to read them in the comments below.

Another possible word in the *ker- family might be sincere, though this has an uncertain etymology. Latin sincerus has the sense “clean, pure, sound”, and one suggestion for its etymology is that the first element is from Proto-Indo-European *sem- meaning “one” (also giving us the word same) and the second element is from *ker- thus giving us literally “one growth”, which would seem to make sense. Another suggestion, though rejected by the OED, is that it comes from Latin sine “without” and cera “wax”. But it’s appropriate enough that we bring the word sincere up in a discussion of creation, especially in light of the expression “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Indeed imitation and influence are essential parts of the creative process. As we say in the video, no one creates in a vacuum, ourselves included. So perhaps we should acknowledge here our own creative indebtedness to sources and influences, which are listed on the sources page. In particular, as is often the case, I took inspiration James Burke, famous for his Connections series and book, especially for the story of the development of artificial lighting technology (and its connection to the theatrical world) and for John Harvey Kellogg’s transformation of breakfast.

And speaking of connections, Mary Somerville’s great work On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences was an attempt to present a connected view of the sciences as they were known at the time, an ambitious and immediately highly celebrated work.  As it happens, John Herschel, son of William, had just recently called for such work in a letter to William Whewell, who went on to review Somerville’s bestseller. Herschel stressed the need for “digests of what is actually known in each particular branch of science ... to give a connected view of what has been done, and what remains to be accomplished”. Four years later, Somerville’s book was published, coincidentally enough under the publisher John Murray who was also publisher and friend of Lord Byron, the father of Somerville’s student Ada Lovelace. You can read an excellent outline of Somerville and On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences here if you want more information on the first “scientist”.

 John Herschel

John Herschel

 John Murray

John Murray

Somerville herself was well connected and knew many other great minds of the day, such as William Herschel, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, Charles Lyell, Georges Cuvier, Humphry Davy, and John Playfair. On the subject of connected people, there’s another chain of connections that ties Joseph Haydn, composer of the oratorio The Creation, in with John Harvey Kellogg and his cornflakes. You see the libretto of The Creation mentioned in the video, either written by or passed along by Thomas Linley to Haydn, was the first English text of the oratorio, and is now lost. A second (and by all accounts much improved) English text was written by poet Anne Home. Home’s husband was one John Hunter, a surgeon who was in part responsible for bringing the scientific method into medicine. Hunter was a teacher of the famous Edward Jenner, who pioneered vaccination by using the less deadly cowpox to inoculate against smallpox, one of the most important contributions to medical science. The idea of inoculation against smallpox was initially brought into England from Turkey by aristocrat, writer, and all around celebrity Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She is perhaps most famous for her Embassy Letters, written while in Turkey as an ambassador’s wife. Lord Byron was deeply influenced by the Embassy Letters and seems to have been kind of obsessed with Lady Montagu herself, a woman who died well before he was born. Of course as the video demonstrates, Byron’s daughter was Ada Lovelace, mathematician and the world’s first computer programmer, who got harpist John Thomas into the Royal Academy of Music, who later taught Nansi Richards, who gave John Harvey Kellogg the idea for the cornflakes rooster mascot. So from creation to cereal, two words etymologically connected, in ten easy steps! Speaking of Kellogg, by the way, though Richards was punning on his name in Welsh, his actual name doesn’t mean rooster but is literally “kill hog”, an occupational name for a butcher. Odd name for a man who prescribed a bland vegetarian diet!

 Anne Home

Anne Home

 John Hunter

John Hunter

 Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner

 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

 Lord Byron

Lord Byron

But getting back to Ada Lovelace’s tutor Somerville, and her admiring reviewer Whewell, in addition to inventing the term “scientist” Whewell was quite a coiner of scientific terminology, including a number of terms suggested to Michael Faraday for his work on electricity, such as ion, anode, and cathode. By the way, Faraday was another among the many admirers of Somerville and her work.  And Faraday brings us back to artificial lighting, so a small footnote or two on lighting technology—which does also tie into Somerville’s work too, as well to Haydn’s Creation. Of course Somerville included several sections on light and optics in On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. Additionally that very same John Herschel, who called for a book like Somerville’s and whose father William (who was also a composer as well as a scientist) met Haydn, reported on the effectiveness of Thomas Drummond’s limelight. Drummond, by the way, after putting limelight to good use in surveying work, tried to get his invention into lighthouses, before it was taken up by the theatrical world. And one lighting technology I didn’t cover in the video deserves a brief mention here. Kerosene (a petroleum product) was invented by Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner, and became a useful lamp fuel still used today. The word kerosene, which Gesner registered as a trademark in 1854 before it ultimately became genericized, comes from Greek keros meaning “wax”, related to that Latin word cera in that possible though unlikely etymology of the word sincere. Kerosene, by the way, is also sometimes referred to as paraffin, a word originally coined by German chemist Karl von Reichenbach in 1838 to refer to the waxy substance he extracted from wood tar, the very same waterproofer for ships that Archibald Crane was trying to replace with his coal tar. The word paraffin comes from Latin parum “not very, too little” and affinis “associated with”, because the substance was not closely related to other chemicals.

 Abraham Gesner

Abraham Gesner

 Karl von Reichenbach

Karl von Reichenbach

And a small footnote or two on meal terminology. As briefly mentioned in the video, the word lunch is probably related to lump. The word lunch was initially expanded to the form luncheon, before being abbreviated back to lunch, though there may also be some influence from the Spanish word lonja meaning “a slice (of ham)”. Another meal word worth noting is supper, which is sometimes used to refer to the last meal of the day. It comes into English from the Old French verb soper “to eat the evening meal” but comes ultimately from a Germanic root, which also gives us the words sip, sop, soup, and sup, so I suppose etymologically speaking you should sup your supper by sipping your soup and sopping it up! As for breakfast, French shows the same shifting mealtimes, with the word dejeuner (coming from the same root that gives English the word dinner) originally referring to “breakfast” and then “lunch”, with the phrase petit dejeuner (literally “small dinner”) being used to refer to “breakfast”.

And one final point to round off this blog. I briefly mentioned the etymology of chaos in the video, but I give a fuller treatment of it in the video on “Linoleum” if you care to give it a look. Our modern sense of chaos meaning “disorder” doesn’t arise until the 17th century. The word chaos stretches back through ancient Greek to a Proto-Indo-European root *gheu- meaning “to gape, yawn” which also leads to the word Ginungagap, the primordial void in the Norse creation myth. And speaking of Norse mythology, it also has something to tell us about the nature of creativity, in the story of the Mead of Creation, which you can hear about in our accompanying podcast (being released soon), which along with this blog post and video makes up our creative contributions to the #CreateICG collaboration. Give it a listen!