frontier

I was recently talking with a friend about the 1988 Calgary Olympics. The theme song for those games was a very commercial-sounding piece by David Foster, quite catchy and all, but you did hear it a million times… I said I thought it should have been “Games Without Frontiers” by Peter Gabriel.

But of course that would never go. I mean, Calgary is a frontier town!

A frontier town? But the nearest international border is a four-hour drive south!

Ah, yes, well. Any place that brands itself with Old West draws on that sense of frontier – back when it was the advancing boundary of “civilization” (i.e., the front of an invading colonial force). Everything past it was beyond the boundary stake – literally beyond the pale (pale meaning ‘boundary stake’ is an archaic usage now, since we’ve generally gotten past impaling people for our own advancement; the term beyond the pale originated in Ireland when the British were colonizing it and the Irish were the “savages”).

But there are so many other frontiers. There are frontiers of science. International frontiers. Space, the final frontier. What they all have in common is just that they’re like a listening post on the forehead of advancement: a front ear.

OK, yes, the ier part isn’t related to ear. But the front part does relate to the forehead – that’s what it meant in Latin (nominative frons, accusative frontem). It also meant ‘brow’ and thus a part of the face that carried expression. And from those senses it had several figurative extensions. Old French took that front and added ier to indicate ‘the front side of a thing’. English took that word and sense, and extended it to a military sense and thereby a national boundary sense, and left the original sense behind. So it became a front of tears, an affront here, and then settled into the front tier of a fixed polity, and then from that it went to the various figurative senses.

The question, then, is what flavours dominate when we speak of frontiers of science or inquiry or exploration. These are intellectual endeavours, realms of peaceful discovery where things generally do not, as the saying goes, get mighty western. Should we feel uneasy that we are availing ourselves of a military and colonialistic metaphor? Or do we want to trace it further back – advance our frontier of historical regression, no, wait, you can’t advance backwards, that’s not a frontière, it’s a derrière… well, whatever, do we want to just go right to the forehead? That seems more reasonable, since it’s the seat of reason and the part of Zeus from which Athena, goddess of wisdom, was born.

In which case this word has a side of Apollo – rational, thoughtful – and a side of, um, not Dionysus but Ares, the god of war. It’s like the little tiny girl with the little tiny ear, I mean curl, right in the middle of her forehead: when she was good she was very, very good, and when she was bad she was horrid.

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