I learned a new word last week. It’s new to me, anyway. In fact, it’s a very old word, from Old English. Dustsceawung literally means “the contemplation of dust.” To engage in dustsceawung (prounounced DUST-SHAY-a-wung) is to reflect on the truth that every bit of dust you encounter used to be something a little more exciting. It may have come from the wall of a great city, now crumbled to nothing. It may have once been the skin cells of a queen or a general long dead, or just a regular person, not great but loved by family and friends. The dust on your bookshelf may be the remains of a book that somebody labored over just as hard as you are currently laboring over your work-in-progress. The point is that all human bodies and all human endeavors return to dust eventually. Dustsceawung lays siege to our self-importance. As Puddleglum put it, “If that doesn’t steady a chap, I don’t know what will.”
One might also point out to the practitioners of dustsceawung, however, that it works the other way too. Sure, our bodies and everything we make will go back to dust, but every human life, every human endeavor exists because God saw fit to shape the dust of the earth into a human body and breathe his very breath into it. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is humbling to human ambition, but it’s ennobling to dust—and to those of us who are made of dust.
I got curious about the scaewung part of dustscaewung. In Old English it means “contemplation” or “beholding.” An Old English rendering of Zion, for instance, was wlite-sceawung—”the beauty-beholding” or “the glory-beholding.”
That word sceawung gave rise to our modern English showing. Somewhere along the line, the meaning of the word got turned inside-out: Old-English sceawung, beholding, is a receptive act. Modern-English showing happens on the other end of the exchange: to show is to present something for another to behold. I have a feeling this kind of inversion has happened often in the development of our language; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that linguists have a word for this process. But at the moment I can’t think of other examples. If you know of other words that have jumped the fence this way (or if you know the word for such fence-jumping), I’d love to hear from you.
Having seen the origins of showing, I got curious about the origins of telling and was reminded of a couple of things you might find interesting. The word tell originally meant to count or to reckon. This sense survives in the phrase “tell time.” Also, a bank teller is a person who counts money at the bank…a teller is a counter who sits behind a counter. From very early on, another, related sense of tell was “to list things in order,” in the way that counting is a reciting of a list of numbers in order. Describing the events of a story (in order, presumbably), therefore, is a kind of telling, or recounting, or the giving of an account.
The fluidity between counting and listing and storytelling and accounting is apparent in these lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
Is he counting his woes? Listing his woes? Telling his woes? Figuring up his woes in a ledger book? Yes to all of these things.
One more quick note about counting and storytelling. I have already mentioned that “recounting” is one synonym for “telling a story.” The same dynamic is at work in the French raconter, “to recount,” which is the source of our loan-word raconteur—that is, a good storyteller.