strand

Language is a strand.

Perhaps you read that as meaning a thread, a string, a part of a cord, perhaps a line of pearls. It could be that. But I had something else in mind.

I think of three uses of strand I encountered in my youth.

One was in “Scarborough Fair”: “Tell her to find me an acre of land (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) between the salt water and the sea strand, then she’ll be a true love of mine.”

One was the name of a street in London: The Strand.

One was in a translation of a monologue I delivered in Classical Greek in my fourth year of university: the words παραλίαν ψάμμαν were rendered by one commentator as “shingled strand.” The professor of classics who helped me with it informed me that “sandy beach” would be a more plain rendition. At which point I learned what a strand is.

Not a strand of a rope. That strand has a different source, and an uncertain one; the word seems to have washed up from parts unknown. But strand as in beach or seashore is a good old Germanic word that shows up in pretty much every other Germanic language too, and is even borrowed into Finnish worn down to ranta. All mean the same thing: ‘the land along the water’s edge’. A technical definition could be that section of the seashore that is exposed at low tide and submerged at high tide, but in general usage it’s less restrictive and can be used for freshwater places too, such as the beach on Lake Ontario I spent some time on today.

So The Strand in London is a street that used to be right where the river’s edge was, just as The Esplanade, where I live in Toronto, is a street that used to be a walkway on the lake’s edge. And there is no land between the salt water and the sea strand, certainly not an acre; the strand is defined by the edge of the sea.

Which means it is linear, strung along the lapping lip of the world’s water like an infinite thread, longer and longer as you measure it closer and closer but also changing with every instant. At every moment the edge of the strand winds around countless grains of sand, transposing with each successive shift of sea. The land is solid, slow to change; the sea is in constant flux. Hard pieces of silicon and calcium go into the water and are worn down over time into innumerable small grains, a mass object, no longer individual items. Rocks, shells, even pearls and other pieces of nacre are broken and worn to the size of seeds. And sometimes floating persons in their craft come to this land and are unable to depart: they are stranded. Not just beached but bleached and unreached.

The words of the world are rocks and grains of sand set down by wet, ever-shifting life on the edges of the islands of our minds. Or vice-versa: they are the pieces of the hard ground of the world that the waters of the psyche (and of culture) lap at. The salt of the water is the taste of the decay of ages. The grains of the strand are souvenirs of the sea on the land, and I can tell you they stay with you much longer than you thought they would. You find them days, weeks, months later. They start out as large bits of ideas and understanding and speech, and over time they are passed from one tongue to another and worn down – or made more specific. Sometimes we do commerce on them; sometimes we relax and frolic on them. But if you try to cling to them, to fix them in position and to hold the line, you will be stranded.

Look. It’s all metaphor, and metaphor is imprecise and shifting. All our meaning is based on things resembling – but being different from – other things. The solid reality of our interface with the world, our lapping and lapped-at language, is not an acre but an infinity of acres made from the evanescent infinitesimal edge – a thread thinner than any but endlessly involuted – between the salt water and the sea strand.

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One response to “strand

  1. I thought a shingle was a stony beach. I can’t say I’ve heard it used that way, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used. But I have read it and then had to look it up.

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