hyaline

I’m going to try a special feature every so often, at least if people like it. It’s called from the bookshelf. I’ll take a book off the shelf and find a word in it to taste, and add some bibliotechnical cheesecake shots while I’m at it.

I’m going to start with one of my most alluring volumes, part of a two-volume set of Paradise Lost that I saved from perdition at Tufts University two decades ago (it was part of a bequest but was not needed and, frankly, would not have survived in a circulating collection).

It has illustrations by John Martin and was published in London by Septimus Prowett in 1827.

It has the dusty-honey smell of an old book, with those age spots called foxing. Open it carefully; the binding is falling apart, though the pages are still strong. It is tempting to think of it as like a smudged old window, the glass rippling, the view obscured. But the words on the page are there as plain as any day, and when you can read them you can see with the clarity of the mind’s eye into the world it describes.

Let us turn to page… 27. O look, they put spaces before colons and semicolons and exclamation points! And larger spaces after them and – is it? – a double space after a period. Double at least. A space as wide as the sea and more transparent.

The sea? The glassy sea. Line 619: “On the clear hyaline, the glassy sea”… We have our word: hyaline. A word that rhymes with violin. What note does it play?

Is the glassy sea the hyaline? Is it then the high line? It is haline – salty, that is. It may be healing, but it may consume you. Not this sea, though, this glassy sea, this clear hyaline. It is as smooth as water in a glass, and as clear as a looking-glass. It may even reflect.

Which would be why we see the sense and then the same sense again. Hyaline, you see, comes to us from Latin hyalinus, which (as the y should tell you) is a loan from Greek, where the original root is ὕελος huelos ‘glass, crystal’ – a word that Greek may have gotten from Egyptian. A word, then, that has sailed on the Mediterranean, smooth or rough, more than once.

Glass and glass again. Elegant variation, ramified repetition. Use of a fine and pricey word, and then explanation of it with plainer stock. And that poetic trick of taking an adjective and using it as a substantive noun. Milton was not the only to use hyaline this way, though perhaps the first, but its longer and fuller history in English is as an adjective. It means, as the OED says, “Resembling glass, transparent as glass, glassy, crystalline, vitreous.”

Transparent not as the pages of a book, nor as an old and foxy word that requires looking up, but as plain text that, once read, shines an image into your mind. Or as a camera lens, letting the image pass through and be recorded to be re-presented to your own eyes, with their lenses and their vitreous fluid. And, so launched, it sails on them.

11 responses to “hyaline

  1. I like this feature enormously!!

  2. I am loving this! More please.

  3. Thank you very much. I absolutely look forward to these posts!

  4. Yes, definitely. Let’s have more of these!

  5. I adore this. What a great idea!

  6. Great feature. Please post more of these. thelonelyauthorblog

  7. If you please ; more !

  8. James:

    Kudos on this new section. I am certain it will be a success, considering it brings to mind words many of us have also read in the same context, and thus we are given a new perspective on the feeling we once surrendered to.
    The pictures made me think of my own copy of Paradise Lost. It is a rather large book, including the illustrations Gustave Doré imagined for it, published by Arcturus Publishing. And there is a word worth tasting, I believe: Arcturus, or maybe arthurian. I actually learned of its relation to bears when I bought my copy of Paradise Lost. But I am sure many people out there would enjoy tasting it à la Harbeck.

    Daniel E. Trujillo Medina.

  9. Forty years ago, this (now retired) Rheumatologist, then a newly-inducted USAF Major at Malcolm Grow Medical Center was assigned to deliver an anatomical overview of my specialty to a cluster of lawyers, within which I described “hyaline” cartilage. One attorney, no doubt a Classics major, linked the Greek to English ‘glass’. This revelation sparked an abiding interest in medical etymology, prompting me to offer this comment to today’s hyaline post.

    My reading suggests that the proposed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root of hyaline and glass is presumed to be GHEL-, the guttural GH, softened in the Greek, while evolving to G on Celtic, Latin and Germanic tongues, and in some Slavic words to Z. This PIE root begat a plethora of offspring, all of which evoke the concept or image of bright, shining, smooth, reflective.

    Hence, the smooth reflective surface of joint cartilage likened to glass by the Greek-infused Renaissance anatomists. Other GHEL- direct descendants: Teutonic glare, gleam, glint, glitter, glossy, glow, gold. Indirectly, through attributive images, we have glow, gloaming and glower: the first two share the sense of comforting warmth, while the last implies hostile ‘heat’; and also glad, glade and glee (all convey “brightly lit” attributes). Modern English yellow descends from A.S. geolu (I understand initial A.S. ‘g’ often morphed to a ‘y’).

    Romans called amber glaesum. Latin glaber described a smooth shiny hairless pate (from whence our ‘glabrous’).

    It is tempting to infer a linkage with PIE GEL, perhaps ancestral to GHEL, given such derivatives as Latin ‘glacies’ (icy, frozen), source of glacier, and ‘gelare’ (to freeze), whence Italian gelato. And via the French, gelatin.

  10. These spaces before semicolons and the like is something I have noticed in all my little Loeb books published by Harvard — which means this practice must have carried through at least to the 1920s. This is the first time I’ve ever seen someone else mention this odd anomaly in punctuation.

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