A Sombre yet Humorous and Mercifully Brief Introductory Note about My Death, But Only as a Succinct Prolegomenon to the Word Study
Many years from now, when Fate has had the very bad taste to press my final delete button, I hold no hope of everlasting survival crouched at the feet of a Jewish carpenter while I perform some menial, lickspittle, toady function such as eternal toe-jam inspector.
Likewise I toss the damp blanket of disbelief over the death-evaders, those cheery etherized brethren who rise from hospital gurneys having been pronounced doornail-dead. As they merrily yank catheters from orifices, they yammer on and on about the moment of their death when they were being pulled toward a warm white light. For me, the light at the end of the tunnel has always been the oncoming train.
In any philosophical pondering about my demise, I follow my late hero and scholar of religion Joseph Campbell who appeared on PBS with Bill Moyers after having been given a fatal prognosis, a ticket to the land “from whose bourne no traveler returns.” They were old friends and so Moyers could say, “Joe, you’re going to die. You’ve spent your entire life studying all the known religions. What’s the answer to death?”
Campbell, in his late seventies, raised a palsied hand to the TV camera and to Moyers and with his other hand pointed to the one upraised and said, “Today, Joe Campbell’s arm.” Then he snapped his fingers. “Tomorrow, star dust.” He went on to explain that, for him, what we need to do as death approaches is to find a way to contemplate with equanimity our utter dissolution.
Has mental preparation for one’s own death ever been stated better? Granted, it is no facile task. Death is the ultimate insult to our ego, but for me expecting a black, velvety void is nobler and wiser than a life spent as a sinning Uriah Heep, a crawling wretch slobbering over tall tales from the ancient Near East and murmuring to oneself, “There must be an afterlife. How could a creation as wonderful as me just disappear?” To which question Fate has always answered, “Just watch how easy it is, pal!”
Onward Now to Life-Positive Etymology!
Lest my petty thanatopsis stretch out and bury our word topic, let us tidy the gravesite and sweep rude bones into the lime pit, all the better to proceed with our notes and queries, today chiefly about the Latin word for death, mors mortis.
Mors of course abounds with Indo-European cognates. There is Old English morth, English murder, Old Irish marb, Welsh marw ‘he died,’ Lithuanian mirtis ‘death’ and Sanskrit मृत्यु (mṛtyú). The ancient Greek cognate hides slightly in βροτός brotos ‘mortal,’ from an earlier *μροτός (mrotos), itself perhaps a metathetic form of μορτός mortos ‘mortal.’
That Greek root is still kicking around in our English derivative ambrosia ‘the food of the gods,’ that is, the sustenance which made the gods immortal, not subject to death. The Greek adjective ἀμβρόσιος ambrosios ‘pertaining to the immortals’ derives from an earlier adjective ἄμβροτος ‘immortal,’ made up of alpha privative ἀ ‘not’ + μβροτός = μροτός = μορτός ‘mortal.’
In Mexico, I learned a neat Spanish phrase equivalent to English “Drop dead!” Se pusa muerte means literally ‘become yourself dead.’
The Latin words for the dead and for death appear memorably in many sayings. But first here's an explanation of my playful, gobbledygook subhead: Mortiferous Apophthegms.
mortiferous means 'bearing or concerning death’ = Latin mortalis ‘pertaining to death” + apophthegm or apothegm ‘a short, meaningful saying, a pithy maxim’ from classical Greek ἀπόϕθεγμα apophthegma ‘something spoken aloud, a terse saying = ἀπό apo ‘forth’ + ϕθέγγεσθαι phthengesthai ‘to speak out.’ The Greek verbal component may look exotic but it resides inside our common English word diphthong literally ‘word with two sounds, two syllables.’
De mortuis nil nisi bonum ‘concerning the dead, say nothing but good things.’ Really? But why encourage such post-mortem reticence? If the guy is a stiff, rigor mortis ‘the stiffness of death’ having already set it, and you have a beef against the corpse, then why not insult the defunct bastard. As a lawyer tells me, “You can’t libel the dead.”
In one of my failed novels, there is an emaciated English vegan pest named Pallida Morse. Pallida Mors is a phrase from the Latin poet Horace who in his first book of Odes wrote memorably:
pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
Speak those lines aloud. What stark, resonant, alliterative Latin! It means: 'Pale death comes kicking with the same heavy foot at the hovels of beggars and at the castle door of kings' (my translation). Ancient Greeks and Romans did not hand-knock at doors; they kicked at them. In all poetries, death is pale not because the Grim Reaper has neglected his Nivea but because corpses are pale.
Nos morituri te salutamus
According to Roman legend this is the phrase uttered by gladiators to the emperor as they strode into a colossal arena and prepared to battle one another, tired lions and captured Christians. It means: 'We who are about to die give thee greeting' [O emperor].
In articulo mortis
This chiefly Roman Catholic phrase means ‘at the point of death’ or ‘just before death.’ It appears in antique testamentary dispositions and wills to which codicils and revisions have been attached. For example, a criminal patient in articulo mortis may make an important death-bed confession. Or, at the quiet suggestion of an attendant priest, a final act of contrition may grease the holy gates of eternity as a dying person expires with the hope that St. Peter’s portals shall swing easily open and admit a new soul.
To break any dead silence, I’ll now offer two final mortiferous words.
Today a mortgage is money lent to a borrower who gives some of his property as security for the loan. But the historical meaning of the word tells the real story, as detailed neatly in this web explanation: “. . . when the oldest son of a nobleman needed large sums of money which his father refused to give him, he often turned to borrowing.
In arranging the loan, he would gage or “pledge” to repay the debt when his father died (at which time the son expected to receive his inheritance). So it is that mortgage originally meant a pledge (gage) to repay upon the death (mort) of one’s father.
This is quite new medical jargon (1974) naming a person, literally a ‘new-dead,’ who is brain-dead but whose body functions are being maintained artificially by machines. There is some resistance to the word in current clinical literature.
And now, dearly beloved, until we all take the journey on the gurney to Bye-bye-land, I wish you well.
April 17, 2016
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