PERSPECTIVE: Grave Secrets of the English Language; as the Nation Remembers, Alexander R Tulloch Discovers That Death Is More of a Laughing Matter Than You Might Think

Article excerpt

Byline: Alexander R Tulloch

Remembrance Day is here again and at this time of year we pay our respects to those who have fallen and continue to fall on the field of battle for Queen and Country.

And since it was built in 1919/20, the focus of our remembering has been the Cenotaph in London.

But what exactly is the Cenotaph? What makes it different from any other war memorial? After all, most towns and cities have their war memorial, but only London has the Cenotaph.

The answer is that the monument in Whitehall is a war memorial but one with a special symbolic significance. The word is made up of two Greek words kenos 'empty' and taphos 'grave' so that the word simply means 'an empty grave'.

The word grave is from an Old English word grafan (to dig) and really just means a hole dug in the ground.

But grafan did not only apply to digging in the ground. It could be applied to any act of gouging out of wood, metal or clay so that other related words are 'to engrave' 'groove' and 'to carve'.

And an even older linguistic relative is the Greek grapho 'to write', an activity which, in its most primitive form, was little more than scratching marks on stone or clay tablets.

Interestingly yet another link is with the Russian grob. Although it is cognate with 'grave' it actually refers to the box we call a coffin. And 'coffin' (an alternative form of 'coffer') is a direct borrowing of kofinos which to the Ancient Greeks simply meant a 'basket'. …