Most of us know mosaic as referring to art made of little bits – small tiles, for instance, or squares of wood, or little broken bits of pottery. If broad brush strokes are legato, mosaics are staccato.
Some of us, however, also know Mosaic as in Mosaic law: the law of Moses.
I have to say, the first time I saw that, I had a picture of the law being put together from little bits. (I still do, actually.) There may be something to that, but I leave the exegetics and scriptural history to other times, places, and authors.
So now is the part where you expect me to say that these two words, identical but for the capital letter, are really the same word, one capitalized and the other not. Like attic and Attic.
And now is the part where you are disappointed in that. No, they are not the same word. They are like two little squares, perhaps both in ultramarine hue, but one of them made of lapis lazuli and the other of porcelain pained with International Klein Blue.
Our language is something like a mosaic. The words are like little shards, all put together to make images, such as this article. Sometimes you will have two tiles of different colour but broken from the same piece of stone or ceramic. Sometimes you will have two similar tiles broken from the same piece. Sometimes you will have two identical tiles from very different sources.
And our language can seem Mosaic too: governed by a set of laws that may as well have been handed down by the Almighty on a high mountain, not just ten neat commandments on two tablets but hundreds more as well that you probably don’t even know about, some commonsense enough and some of them seemingly designed just to keep you from enjoying things that other people enjoy.
So where do mosaic and Mosaic come from?
The capital version comes from Moses, of course. Where does Moses come from? The man who led the Israelites out of Egypt had an apparently Egyptian name – the same root as you will see at the end of pharaonic names such as Thutmose and Ramesses. The m-s root means ‘son’. Well, he was raised in the Egyptian royal household, after all, adopted by the pharaoh’s daughter. An adopted son of Egypt and true son of Israel, with a truly Egyptian name adopted by the Israelite.
And the lower-case mosaic? It’s not entirely clear; the history is too fragmented. But it appears to come from the same root as museum and music, which is assumed to relate to the muses. Perhaps because shrines to the muses were decorated with mosaic tiles. Art, arts, notes. Staccato bits of ceramic or precious stone. Things that inspire us: the fragments that we put together. Or that come together by coincidence. Governed not by law so much as by resemblance and happenstance.
That’s what our language is like, really. Not immutable laws handed down by divine providence so that we can say who’s in the group and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s wrongeous. More broken bits of diverse provenance that we manage to put together into pleasing patterns.