The world is on fire, it seems.
And, no, I’m not talking about the perpetual sunburn I’ve had all summer from Alaska’s record-breaking heatwave. (Jared is so white …)
I’m talking about the record number of fires in the Amazon rainforest this year (an 84% increase over last year), which is covering Brazil in smoke. And speaking of being covered in smoke, the Susitna Valley is fighting a frantic wildfire that has prompted evacuations and a Matanuska-Susitna Borough disaster emergency declaration. The stories from Alaskans who describe how quickly the blaze set upon them are breathtaking.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written about words associated with fire; in fact, I think my very first Week in Words column was about the Chiniak wildfire in September 2015. So maybe it’s time to revisit those words and see where they take us.
The word “fire” is an Old English word, originally spelled “fyr,” and derives from the Proto-Germanic root “fur.” We can trace the Germanic root back to the Proto-Indo-European root “paewr,” which is more preserved in the Greek “pyr,” from which we get words like “pyromaniac” and “burro.”
Wait. “Burro”? Like the Spanish word for “donkey”?
Yep, the Greek word “pyrros” meant “flame-colored,” like a yellowish-red. The Romans borrowed the word as burrus and changed its hued meaning to reddish-brown. Later, the word “burricus” was used to label small horses, whose fur typically was shaded reddish-brown, and the connection to the Spanish donkey was made around the year 1800. Leading to the famous “burrito,” or “little burro,” in 1934. So, in a way, burrito literally means little fire.
The Romans felt like they could do what they want with the Greek “pyrros” because they already had a root to deal with words related to fire: “egni,” from which we get the word “ignite.”
The differences between “egni” and “paewr” are quite interesting. Typically, we use fire-related words with the “paewr” root to refer to fire as a substance, an inanimate object which we can observe. “Egni,” though, seems to connote fire as a force, living and animate. When you ignite something that implies that you bring it to life, you animate it, in a sense.
Wildfires, for instance, even though the word is rooted in “paewr,” are certainly conceived of as a living force that we humans have to contend with from time to time.
The word “water,” too, has those dual meanings: the PIE root “ap-,” which we see in the Sanskrit “apah” and other languages in the Indian subcontinent, meaning “water,” is the root that signifies water as a living force. The root “wed-,” which took the Germanic route to the Old English “waeter,” signifies water as merely a substance.
Not only has its definition and connotations shifted over the years, but fire also went through a spelling change in Middle English between the 13th and 17th centuries. For years, the word was spelled fyr, then it shifted to fier, which we still see today in the word fiery — instead of firey. Beginning around the year 1200, though, during the Great Vowel Shift, the letter i changed pronunciations (from “ee” to “eye”) and the silent e was invented.
A related word that was also the victim of the Great Vowel Shift is “smoke,” which engulfed the Mat-Su Valley and Anchorage, and even made its way down to Kodiak this week.
Smoke is the modern spelling of the Old English “smoca,” from the Proto-Germanic “smuk.” While the ancient Romans used the word “fumus” for smoke, hence our word “fume,” the Germanic root comes from the Greek “smykhein,” rooted in the PIE “smeug.”
Those of you Tolkein nerds out there might recognize the connection to Bilbo’s dragon nemesis: Smaug. Though Smaug is pronounced the same as smog, the word “smog” is actually a portmanteau of the words “smoke” and “fog,” and was coined in 1905 to describe London’s coal-related black fog that hung over the large city. The connotation of Smaug, via the Greek root, has more to do with smoke from a smoldering flame. (Nerd alert.)
Already, more than 3,000 acres and 50 structures have been caught up in the smoldering flames of the Susitna fire, and indigenous people in Brazil are calling out corporations and organizations for deliberately setting fires to stamp out their cultures.
There’s no question that fire and smoke are two of the most destructive forces on Earth, causing people to evacuate their homes — new and old.
Now if I can just get rid of this sunburn.