Experiments in Etymology: Things in Frankfort, KY

Brass Horse HeadLet us start with things. The very word – thing – is a word from the Old Norse, used in Scandinavian countries with the meaning of “meeting” or “assembly.” Thing described a gathering, not of objects, but of people. Interestingly enough, one of “thing’s” cognates is the Dutch word “ding,” which, in English, we recognize as a loud ringing, clattering, commotion. In a way, “things” are the bringing together of voices, people, noises, and actions. In this light, speaking of things as inanimate objects is almost trite, if not a complete etymological misappropriation.

Compare that definition of “thing” to the Latin word “res,” a stagnant object or matter. (In English, we think of “res” in so stagnant and dead terms that we have used it demarcate the the second tone of a diatonic scale from all others, fixed and immovable.)

So, let us begin here – with dings, things that are very much alive, shedding, and transfiguring on micro and macro levels. This past winter, Mary Love and I drove up to Frankfort, Kentucky, to the home where my great-great-aunt lived and died, a home filled with dings, no res.

The place was swimming with dings, three stories of closets, shelving, bureaus, cabinets, and old desks, packed neatly with anything and everything that might be useful (or perhaps just beautiful): 15-inch long tapered candles, old typewriters and sewing machines, silver, brass, and intricate lace work snipped and laid away by mothers and grandmothers. Train trunks, an 86-year old violin, glass paneled wooden bookshelves, and an array of serving ware from a bygone era.

Removing the things of another person, especially one you knew on some level, is accompanied by a distinctly uncanny sense (not quite voyeurism). I think this has to do with the fact that things, real and true things, have a part of their owner imbued in them, some intangible ringing that they carry with them outside of their natural place in the world. It’s a presence that can be felt.

There’s one ding that has resonated for me in particular, a brass horse head clip that bears the markings: 7-79 COPYRIGHT 1949 / HORSE HEAD, made by the VA. Metalcrafters in Waynesboro, VA. The clip can be used as a paperweight, mounted to  a wall, or for a number of any other purposes. But – as it is with things – its being isn’t wrapped up in its functionality. Rather, its essence is granted to it by the user…

As her caretaker says, my great-great-aunt carried this clip in her last few months, shuffling about the house, its great alloyed weight hanging limp in her weakening right hand. But what enthralls me – or maybe disturbs me, I’m not quite certain – is how she would push on the horse’s strained, forward-jutting neck, her thumb and forefinger working its click-clack-dinging like some tinny trap lashing back or the safety pulled off a handgun, this shuffling, dinging, thing-resonation of 99 years coming to an end.

And the stranger thing is, when you hold the horse head in your hand, you can feel the warmth of flesh come back to you in an almost unreal way, as if metals of a certain weight had some natural exothermic property, though we know this not to be the case. And yet you can feel it otherwise, you can feel it, this resounding ring, the thing shining forth, this meeting or assembly of a person, a time, an experience, and you right there in the palm of your warm, living hand.