transhumant

Wow, is this a word from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Doesn’t it even look like the top of a spooky gate, or some sinister altarpiece, with pikes or candles at each end and another rising higher in the middle? Such balance, too: t – 4 letters – h – 4 letters – t. Yeeeesssss, someone who has gone beyond the human: trans plus human, and then the t on the end to give it that active ending, and a feel like revenant but so much farther…

Actually, it’s more like a word from Zorba the Greek. Well, if Zorba happened to be a member of the Sarakatsani. Oooh, who are they? A mystical sect with secret knowledge of the migration of souls? Well, ah, the migration of soles. Specifically the soles of their feet and their sheep’s feet. They’re Balkan shepherds, and, like various other peoples in many countries around the world, they herd their animals from one area to another (often far away) to follow the changes of the seasons, grazing where and when the grazing is good. This is called transhumance and they are transhumant. The shape of our word is thus not so much altarpiece or gate as route profile (from t to t) or perhaps three shepherds and eight sheep (or seven plus a dog).

The migration, like the mystic rites, is trans-inducing: Latin trans meaning “across.” But human comes from humanus “of, or relating to, people,” from homo “man, human,” whereas humant is derived ultimately from humus, “soil.” They both do trace back to the Indo-European root dhghem, so the resemblance is not coincidence. But though we all return to dust (well, transhumans may not), transhumants do it annually.

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting this word.

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One response to “transhumant

  1. When James suggested the image of the shepherds and their sheep, I mentally added a lineup of two shepherds, eight sheep, and a Border collie in the middle, plumy tail held high because he would be, after all, the one who was really in charge of the whole group.

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