scarth

This mountain is not quite smooth, not quite even all the way up, not quite furry with the green of trees from top to bottom. Wrapped in a band around it near the top is a grey scarf of rock face, a scar of earth. This is no simple hill you could drive a car up – you would get more than a scare if you tried. I cannot say you would face the wrath of the mountain, as I think it would not truly care; it is just the implacable reality of this swath of scarth, swaddled at the bottom in scree. If you were to be scrappy and scramble up it, your boots would make the sound of what they were trying to climb: “scarth, scarth.” A soft slide, a catch with a kick, and then more sliding – dirt hissing down, perhaps, or your boot, or all of you ruffling down, and then it may be you who would have the scar.

How did it get to be here, this scarth on the mountain of words? Was it the result of some unnatural or accelerated process? Seismic or volcanic changes in the geology of lexis? No, no – it has been here for a long time; it came up naturally, from Old Norse, skarð “notch, cleft, mountain pass”, cognate with our word shard – such cracks and gaps are broken places, and in some things the break leaves pieces. And here is a piece that slipped into a gap in the language, and it has been there ever since. Few people now know of it; you might say it has passed out of usage. Yet it still abides in a few old books, peeking out between the mosses, and in some dialect. A word, once having been, cannot un-be, but it can change its form and its meaning, and it can be forgotten. Until one day, hiking in word country, you find a gap… no, not a gap. There is something there: bare rock, a cliff. A scarth.

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