This has been pretty sad week.
My fellow columnist, Hank Pennington, passed away this week, as did a staple of the Kodiak theatre arts community, Tom Kjera, who also has ties to Fairbanks. On top of that, a literary icon who influenced my scholarly work in critical race studies and literature, Toni Morrison, who changed the landscape of American fiction and literary studies.
These deaths got me thinking quite a bit about the word “legacy” this week. Legacy has been on the brain anyway, with discussions online and in person about the legacy of the University of Alaska amid financial exigency and massive reorganization plans, the legacy of the governor’s administration amid recall petitions and even the legacy of our state as we tip back into recession. But then I see these three icons — Pennington, Kjera and Morrison — whose legacies are much more bright.
The word “legacy,” though, has little to do with brightness. Rather, it’s about mission.
“Legacy” joined English in the late 14th century, originally spelled “legacie,” from the Latin “legatia” or “legatus.” Back then, the word referred to a group of people who were sent on a mission, much like an ambassador or envoy.
But for centuries before that, a “legacy,” or “legate,” was specifically an official representative of the Pope. As the Pope’s influence was challenged in the 15th and 16th century, “legacy” returned to a more secular meaning as in the original Latin.
In the context of a last will and testament, legacies were final directions given to one’s heirs or surrogates. And by the middle of the 15th century, particularly in Scottish English, the word pretty much only referred to property, gifts or instructions left in a will. A legacy was no longer a person, it was now a thing.
Hence the term “legacy hunter,” a term dating from the 1690s describing a person who deliberately takes care of old or sick rich people in hopes of getting a taste of their estate.
Then, by the 19th century, someone’s legacy became something more existential. It was about how someone’s example in life was carried on in the memories of the living. It was less about stuff, and more about influence, as if the person who passed away, in some indirect way, has given a mission to those still alive to live (or avoid, I suppose, in some cases) the example they set in life.
So there’s some etymological truth to saying that we are the legacies of those who have died before us.
Legacy is also on the minds of residents of El Paso and Dayton, who mourn those who died and celebrate those who sacrificed themselves, revitalizing the mission to enact stricter gun control laws, including background checks, which has broad bipartisan support.
The word “background” is a little more dear to me, as it was originally a word used in the theater. Of course, the words “back” and “ground” existed before that, but it was theater folk in the 1670s who created the compound word to describe the set design behind the actors on stage. By 1752, “background” was a term applied to painting, in the landscape and portraiture sense, and in 1854 we see it used figuratively, which is the sense in the term “background check.” After all, when you conduct a background check, you aren’t literally looking behind the client to analyze the scenery behind them.
“Back” is an Old English noun, spelled “baec,” from the Proto-Germanic “bakam,” and seems unique to Germanic. Other languages, when referring to the back, use words associated with spine (like the Russian “spina”) or the shoulder blade (like the Spanish “espalda”).
In background, though, “back” is in its adjective form, which was developed in Middle English years, though, admittedly, it’s difficult to tell when “back” is an adjective, adverb or noun when it’s in a combined word like “background.”
Like “back,” “ground” is also an Old English word found only in Germanic, and had many definitions: surface of the earth, bottom of the sea, a foundation and even Hell. It comes from the Proto-Germanic “grundu,” meaning deep place.
As we explore the backgrounds of these shooters this week, it’s like looking in a deep, hellish place. These are legacies that, as a nation, we should not be proud of.
But the good thing about legacies, though, is that we can create our own. We are capable of sending those after us with a gift, with a mission to take care of themselves and those around them.
Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at email@example.com.