You know how sometimes when you’re looking at some website there will be an ad showing a female face with four eyes and two mouths and asking you to click to say how many eyes she has? It’s really hard to look at that face, isn’t it – because our minds are made to process faces with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. That’s why we see faces in things that don’t have them.
Well, we may not be biologically programmed to expect certain letters in certain places in words, but we still get used to the way things are in our language, and when an anglophone looks at a word like ylem, the mind may go into the same kind of tizzy as those four-eyed faces cause. Wrong order! Is that supposed to be mely? Or emly? Or what, now?
The proof that this is not inborn is that it was once quite common in English to have words that started with y plus a consonant. The Oxford English Dictionary, not one to remove a word simply because it’s 600 years out of usage, has a decent little list of them. It happens that it was a standard prefix for the past tense: ylent was the word that is now lent (past tense of lend), for instance, and fans of medieval music may know the song Adam lay ybounden (ybounden means bound).
So, in the past, that y signified the past. That rather takes us to the beginning of things, no? Well, no, not for this word, anyway. This word is even older than that old. It comes from classical Greek originally, which was around two millennia before Middle English. The Greek hylé, υλη, originally “wood”, was used by Aristotle to refer to the primordial matter of the universe. And from him came a much more modern English usage: circa 1400, writers also used it to refer to the primordial matter of the universe, the uncreated chaos.
And then, in the middle of the 20th century, some physicists, thinking about what stuff was really made up of before there was stuff – what was in the great cosmic vat of Play-Doh, or rather the tight little ball that blew up into everything there is, me, you, Mahattan, and the Pleiades included – decided they needed a word for it. And what better word to use than the one that the medieval thinkers had already used?
Well, I’ll tell you what better word: the same word, but renewed by a shift in form. In written Greek, that h was actually just a diacritic – the word was ylé, υλη – and later, in Latin, if you took the accusative form, it was hylem. So a bit of historical acceleration gave us ylem. Sort of like the accelerated history in the opening credits of the sitcom Big Bang Theory.
And everything that’s old is new again, but changed in a way that produces a sort of cognitive dissonance. I mean, how do you even say it? (Like “ee lem”.) And does it seem sort of like mêlée? (Well it may – the beginning of things was a bit wild.) Well, one thing is sure: what should be last is seen in the first place, and from that initial constriction the tongue touches for a moment and then opens for another before closing again. Its y beginning also makes it seem strange, maybe even eerie, but also a throwback to a much older time. And so we have the word for the dust that to dust returns, as it is bound, and then expands again to make everything, from Adam on. And maybe next time around four eyes will be normal (he says, adjusting his glasses).