Bill Long 1/8/08
Like, Man, A Totally Heavy Experience
The root "grav," from the Latin noun gravis and verb gravere, meaning "heavy" or "to press heavily upon," is the fruitful mother of many verbal offspring in English. Let me introduce them briefly here and then, like a proud papa, tell you something about each one of them: (1) gravid; (2) gravamen; (3) graveolent; (4) graviportal; (5) grave; (6) gravific; (7); gravigrade; (8) gravitate. There are others, too, but these will keep us more than busy.
But let's begin with a word that might not first come to mind when we think of "grav"--and that is to grieve. The definition with which we are most familiar is # 5 in the OED: "To affect with grief or deep sorrow." "He was grieved by the corrupt speech of his son." But if you scroll up the page to definition # 1 of the verb grieve, we have "to press heavily upon, as a weight; to burden." It is used only in the passive voice in this sense. The usage goes back to John Wyclif's 1382 translation of the NT. Matt. 26:43 reads, in our modern translations: "Again he (Jesus) came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy." Here is how Wyclif renders this verse:
"And eftsone he came, and foonde hem slepynge; forsothe her eyen weren greved."
Now let's move to the list above, in random order.
Gravid, Graveolent, Gravamen
The Latin, gravidus, means "burdened" or "heavy," but when it came into English in 1597 it meant "pregnant." "Woemen when they are gravide with Childe..." It took about a century for gravid to take on a figurative meaning: "Let The gravid Universe deliver'd be From pangs." Or, from 1882: "They are not merely gravid with ideas but have a plan to produce." The word is suggestive for our speech and writing. We need not simply say that one had a "pregnant" thought; take it right to the root--and call it a "gravid" thought or idea.
Graveolent is a favorite spelling bee word because it not only is a useful, and little known, word but there are a few places in it where an unwary speller might fall. Taking it apart we have "heavy" (gravis) and "smell" (olentem, from olere, meaning "to smell"). Something graveolent (accent on the antepenult--look it up!) thus has a strong or offensive smell; it is "rank" or "fetid." Last night in a spelling bee I attended a contestant correctly spelled fetidness; the equivalent would be graveolence. The word came into English in the mid-17th century: "Odoraments objected to the nose in great quantity are graveolent." A theologian can wreck and sometimes correctly honor any good word, and so from 1875 we have: "The soul...smelled the graveolent vapors of Avernus."
A gravamen (it can be pronounced four ways, with the first one listed in the Unabridged--gra VAY men) in Late Latin was a physical inconvenience, but when it came into English in the early 17th century it found its home in two contexts: the Church and the Courts. In ecclesiastical terms it was a "memorial presented by the Lower House of Convocation to the Upper representing the existence of disorders or grievances in the church." One could have "gravamina" (plural) against an Archpriest; in 1889 a certain Archdeacon Denison presented a very "doleful" gravamen. In law it is was a grievance but by the 19th century it had adopted a more precise definition as the particular part of an accusation bearing most heavily on the person accused. Though a more particular definition obtained, it could be used in any forum. From 1839: "The great gravamen, too, of these charges against him is his leaning towards the Americans." Usually when the word "gravamen" is used today it appears in the phrase, "the gravamen of the charge..." "The gravamen of Jesus' charge against the Pharises was that their scrupulous religiosity masked a deeper separation from God."
Graviportal, Gravific, Gravigrade, Grave, etc.
Let's begin with word not in the Unabridged, but only in the OED: graviloquence. It means "a grave speech." Fewer than a dozen Google references popped up; thus it is really rare. But we also have the words breviloquence, which designates laconism or "brief speech" and grandiloquence, having to do with pompous or pretentious speech. One shouldn't confuse the word "grand" here with the sense that the speech is eloquent or moving; rather it is meant to suggest, as Roget's tells us, bombast, claptrap, fustian, orotundity, rant or turgidity. A synonym for grandiloquence is magniloquence. I think you have enough now to leave the "loquence" words behind for many a year.
Graviportal appears in the Unabridged but not the OED. It means "having the body supports adapted to the bearing of great weights." We see the Latin "portare" in this word--to carry. Thus, an elephant has "graviportal legs." One could say that with the prevalence of earthquake danger in CA, the buildings must have graviportal walls and foundations. Gravigrade relates both to an adjective--"walking heavily" or a group of animals--the Gravigrada. The most common association of this word, which means "heavy step" is with sloths of North America, which have long been extinct. But I would propose we try to recapture the word to describe any creature especially "slow of foot."
Gravific particles, true to form, are heavy atoms or fluids. The term goes back about 200 years, but I don't see anyone beating down doors to use it today. If you gravitate towards something you are literally moving or tending to move by the force of gravity towars a body. Bodies near and on the earth tend to gravitate towards its center. But this word has almost been completely taken over by the figurative usage--where we use it to express our interest in something. "I tend to gravitate towards literature." Oh, while I am there, I ought to mention gravitas. It is a Latin word that means "gravity" or "weighty dignity; reverend seriousness; serious or solemn conduct or demeanor." When George W. Bush ran for President in 2000 there was a concern that he wasn't "mature" enough for the job (the concern is even stronger in 2008). Thus, Dick Cheney was supposed to give gravitas to the ticket. Indeed, he gave some some of that, if the word is taken literally.
Let's conclude this essay with grave, the word similar enough to our root to make us wonder if it is the same word. But, alas, grave (the thing people are buried in) comes from the German word for "dig." But the adjective, meaning "serious," is derived from the Latin root grav, which this essay considers. A process called gravure is "the process of engraving by means of photography; a print produced by this process."
We could do a lot more. For example, a gravedo is a cold in the head; a coryza. This derives from the identical Latin word which suggests a "heaviness" in the limbs or head. I think this essay has achieved, as Woody Allen said famously in Annie Hall, "total heaviosity."
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long