In a first for the Gwich’in tribe this week, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which represents 15 Gwich’in communities across Alaska and Canada, formally rebuked a sitting member of the US Congress: Rep. Don Young.
This appears odd, especially since Young’s late wife was Gwich’in, but Gwich’in chiefs took umbrage with Young angrily stating that they had no voice (in fact, he called them “foreigners”) in the discussions concerning the development of ANWR (which might all be a ruse anyway — see my column last week), and falsely declaring that he was a member of their tribe.
The verb “rebuke” came to English in the early 14th century from the hybrid Anglo-French “rebuke,” which meant to beat back or repel. The Old French root is “rebuchier,” which may not mean what you think.
The prefix “re-,” in this case, means back, in the sense of undoing something. The Indo-European root, “wert,” means to turn.
The base word, though, “bushcier,” means to strike or chop wood. You can see this root in the French “buche,” meaning wood, which actually comes from the Proto-Germanic (and not Latin) root “busk.” That’s where we get our word “bush” from.
So what does the word “rebuke” have to do with chopping wood? Have you ever been chopping wood, storing up for the winter perhaps, swing your ax down on a log and feel like you’re hitting a rock? Almost as if the ax bounces back from the stubborn tree?
It’s like that one Donald Duck cartoon “Good Scouts” where he tries to impress Huey, Dewey and Louie by chopping down a petrified tree. However, after he makes contact with his ax, the impact sends a violent and upsetting vibration (emphasized by a theremin sound) throughout his body. He doesn’t make a dent in the tree. It is all, of course, very comedic.
That’s, in a sense, what the word “rebuke” means: it’s the ax coming at you, and then you repelling the ax with steadfast resolve.
In what could be construed as the opposite of rebuking, scientists captured the first image of a black hole, those astrophysical entities whose gravitational pull is so strong, that not even light can escape it.
To be honest, the event horizon kind of looks like the Eye of Sauron. Who knew that the algorithm that computer scientist Katie Bouman, Ph.D., developed to capture the supermassive black hole image might also release the hordes of Mount Doom? #nerdalert (Seriously, though, you should check out Bouman’s TedTalk on how difficult it is to take a picture of a black hole. She makes quite a powerful statement on the benefits of science and inter-disciplinary collaboration.)
I’ve written about the word “black” in a few previous columns, but not “black hole” yet. Originally, scientists used the term “dark star” or “gravitationally collapsed object” to discuss the phenomenon. In the early 1960s, physicist Robert H. Dicke was the first to use the phrase “black hole” in this context, though the term didn’t catch on until late 1967 when John Wheeler, an American physicist, popularized it.
But Dicke used “black hole” as an allusion to a notorious prison called the Black Hole of Calcutta, where apparently no one ever left alive. Of course, this isn’t entirely true. Of the 164 British prisoners of war who were stuffed into a barracks meant to hold only four people during a Bengali uprising against the growing British presence in India, about 20 survived, but still, the cramped conditions led to 143 British soldiers dying of suffocation and heat exhaustion.
So the terrifying myth of the Black Hole of Calcutta was carried over to the terrifying myth of the black holes in space, certainly emphasized by Disney’s 1979 film “The Black Hole,” one of my favorite childhood movies. #doublenerdalert
“Hole,” in Old English, was a catch-all word for any kind of hollow or orifice of any size. It comes from the Proto-Germanic “hulan,” from the PIE root “kel,” meaning to cover, conceal or even save. We get words like “cell,” “ceiling,” “eucalyptus” and even “hull” from this root.
Centuries ago, the word “hole” widely replaced the English word “hollow,” which was used to identify the habitation of animals who lived in the ground, trees or caves. So, while we may think of “hole” as an empty space, the word originally implied that the space was occupied and purposeful.
Right now, physicists don’t really know what occupies a black hole. It could be other dimensions, parallel universes, Matthew McConaughey or maybe a sustainable Alaska state budget.
If we’re lucky.
Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at email@example.com.