Despite our turn into the iconic age, words still fascinate me, their roots, etymologies, metaphorical extrapolations and the insights they provide into various cultures who adopt and adapt them. To turn the old adage on its head, a word may be worth a thousand pictures.
Take the name of Cerberus (Κέρβερος), the hellhound of Greek Mythology, a three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to Hades and kept the souls of the deceased from leaving and the living from entering. Greeks and Romans of classical times would to put a slice of cake in the hands of their dead to pacify this guardian of the infernal region and so ease their passage by feeding the beast. Later this turned into the expression “to give a sop to Cerberus”, meaning offering a bribe to propitiate a potentially troublesome or dangerous person. Hercules’ final labor was to kidnap this monster and take him into the land of the living. Though Cerberos later returned to his duty at the gates of Hades, his name remained behind and wandered far and wide in our world.
The watchdog Cerberos has a variety of jobs in modern times, everything from Cancerbero (dog-cerberus), one Spanish term for a football goalkeeper, to a portable tower with mounted sensors, fashioned to provide consistent ground surveillance for military perimeter defense. Kerberos is the name of an authentication protocol for computer networks. The guard dog also gives his moniker to an anti-theft device for your android phone, as well as advertising a capital management company.
To me the journey of words through time and cultures is a metaphor for the discourse of cultures themselves, grounded in a past meaning but ever flowing downstream and, splashing itself against and applying itself to what we encounter and create, what we try to explain and ultimately seek to manage and benefit from. Our cultural narratives are ever rooted and ever sprouting into new branches, blooms, and fruit, often just from the stories of a single seed word.
Pete Seeger sings, “Words, words, words”
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