Before I jump into the words emanating from the congressional impeachment hearings that will certainly dominate this week’s news cycle, I want to talk about balls.
In many northern communities as far away as Finland, people have been discovering balls of ice, some as big as cantaloupes, underneath the frozen surface of rivers. These ice balls are common in areas like the Great Lakes, where turbulent rivers create slush that collects into balls and freeze as they float from the lakes. But now these balls have shown up in Alaska.
“Ball” is an Old English word, originally spelled “beal,” which comes from the Old Norse “bollr,” from the Proto-Germanic “balluz.” At the root of “ball” is the Proto-Indo-European “bhel,” literally meaning to blow and swell. And you can see this root in words like “balloon,” “bulk” and even “fool,” “boulevard” and “Excalibur.”
So what’s happening with these ice balls, a form of what geologists call frazil ice, is that ice crystals are freezing together into chunks, but then the water around them warms, and the waves from these rivers smooth out these chunks into balls. And as these balls float around the rivers, the water above them freezes in a supercooling, trapping the balls underneath. So it is indeed a bizarre sight to crack through some river ice to see a soup of ice balls hidden below the surface.
Similar to “ball,” “ice” is an Old English word, from the Proto-Germanic “is,” but the history beyond that is unknown by etymologists. One theory is that it is connected to the Afghan “asai,” meaning frost, but we can’t find a PIE connection.
Up until the 15th century, "ice" was spelled “is.” Linguists believe that the spelling was changed by the Norman ruling class to make the word look more “French.”
In the following century, around the 1580s, the phrase “to break the ice” took on a notable metaphorical meaning from the nautical notion of boats breaking up river ice to make way for other boats. Hence, today, to break the ice means to make the first attempt at something.
The ice was broken this week on congressional impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump and his questionable activity in Ukrainian diplomacy. And, yes, like a current affairs nerd as myself, I’ve watched nearly all the hearings so far.
“Hearing,” of course, comes from the verb to “hear,” and Old English word originally spelled “heran.” It comes from the Proto-Germanic “hausejanan,” from the PIE root “kous.” You can hear the PIE root in similar auditory words like “acoustic.” As the root moved from the Greek (as in “koein,” meaning to perceive or hear) into northern Europe, the hard k was changed to a hard g (as in the Saxon “geheiran”), which was dropped about 1,000 years ago, leaving us with the h sound at the beginning of the word.
The vowel shift is also interesting, from a long o sound in “kous” to a long e sound in “hear,” a victim of the Great Vowel Shift in English that took place in the 14th and 15th centuries.
“Hear” took on its noun form in the early 13th century, and the first use of the word “hearing” took place in the 1570s, meaning the same as it does today: a presentation of and listening to evidence.
The word “evidence” was adopted from the Old French word, which came from the Late Latin “evidentia,” meaning proof. But in classical Latin, which was spoken closer to the time of Christ, “evidentia” meant something more like distinction or clearness. In fact, it was a term used in the study of rhetoric to mean obvious or apparent, as in the word “evident.”
The prefix here, “e-,” is a form of “ex-,” meaning out. The base Latin word is “videntem,” a form of the Latin verb meaning to see. Understanding that origin, you can see how, at least in its definition, “evidence” is supposed to be clear and obvious, or at least illuminate what was previously hidden.
Indeed, that might be why some impeachment inquisitors used the phrase “shadow diplomacy,” referring to the administration’s irregular way of conducting foreign policy. “Shadow,” from the Old English “sceadwe,” is rooted in the Proto-Germanic “skadwaz,” meaning shade. The PIE root, “skoto,” means dark.
In political contexts, “shadow” has been used to designate people working as hidden counterparts of a government in power, first used in this context in 1906.
Makes me wonder if more ice balls will be found beneath the ice.
Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at email@example.com.