Cliff Jardine was pissed off.
Miss Henderson had circled a word in his essay and written, “You don’t know what this means.” But he had looked it up in the thesaurus! It was a synonym of spirit! So how could he be wrong to talk about “finding the right chimera”? Such a nice, shimmering word, too, like a ghost or a ghostly chiffon wrap. “Shimera!”
I’d never seen the word before either. It was high school, and his outrage seemed quite reasonable to me. It was some time before I learned what a chimera actually is, and even longer before I learned that the ch is pronounced “k.”
The joke on Cliff was that he had already found the right chimera. It’s called the English language.
What, historically, is a chimera? First of all, it’s also a chimæra. The æ is the Latin spelling, seen in some English versions though lost in the French chimère that was the immediate source of the English word (some writers changed it back to match its glorious classical origins). The Latin got it in turn from the Greek, χίμαιρα khimaira – note that that χ that I render as kh is before a high front vowel and could be like the ch in German ich, which is as close to “sh” as to “kh,” but phonemically it is nonetheless “kh.” But we in Modern English, having neither sound, just harden it to “k.”
A chimera is a mythical creature. It is made of parts from a lion, a goat, and a serpent, and it breathes fire; in Homer, it was slain by the hero Bellerophon riding on Pegasus. By extension, chimera refers to any creature made of wildly disparate parts, or to any implausible fantasy. Or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “An unreal creature of the imagination, a mere wild fancy; an unfounded conception.” Like if you had to fight a dungeon monster made of reanimated hash. Or rehashed animals. The chimera has been quite catchy in popular culture too, as Wikipedia gladly manifests. It is like a camera on America, an avatar of the hyperreal. There are also fish of the order Chimaeriformes, most notably Chimaera monstrosa, also called the rabbitfish or ratfish. Chimeras are, as Buck 65 puts it, wicked and weird.
And so is English: a West Germanic language that displaced a Celtic language and was heavily changed under the influence of invading Scandinavians who had settled in France and brought their version of French to England, and other invading Scandinavians who came directly from different parts of Scandinavia, and that has in more recent times augmented its vocabulary heavily with bits from Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Polynesian languages, Algonkian languages, and, frankly, everywhere. And it has things that look like one thing but are another (ch, anyone?) and things that are sometimes there and sometimes not, or sometimes one thing and sometimes another (is the e version more likable, or is the æ version more likeable?). Whatever you think you have, you don’t have, or you have two of. Every allusion is an illusion, every illusion an allusion.
But you don’t need to be Bellerophon: you don’t need to slay the chimera that is English. You just need to find the right spirit.