The languages we live in are very old, older than the earliest ancestors most of us can name. Yet most of our words are older still. Remember: go back more than 500 years and you will not find an English (or a Spanish) language you can understand—but for many of the words we use, there is a lineage that goes back not a few hundred years, but thousands.
What is the first thing we ever do in the world? Actually, it’s less something we do than something done for us, the first thing done for us as separate beings, making all else possible: After nine months of giving us the very marrow of their bones, our mothers “bear” us into the world: we are “born.” Old Engl. beran (to bear, bring, produce, endure) could trace its lineage back to Proto-Indo-European *bher-.
In ancient Greek (another Indo-European descendant), pherein is “to carry” or “to bear”—the root of “fer” in “transfer.” Carry a word over from one place (meaning) to another: meta + pherein yields “metaphor.”
It’s the same root shared by the fer element in words like ferriferous and auriferous, iron-bearing, gold-bearing.
Latin turned ph into p and we got the -port- in “transport” (to carry across), “import” (to bring in), to “comport” (carry) oneself—and so on, and on.
Spanish portar is to bear—portar arma is to be packing, to carry a weapon. An aircraft carrier is a portaaviones, a case for carrying papers a portafolios (portfolio), etc.
To bear or endure a burden, is to “support it”—soportar, in Spanish. To “suffer,” sufrir, is the same root.
The name of Christopher, the Christian saint and friend to travellers, comes from Church Greek khristophoros, literally Christ (Khristos) + bearing (phoros), as the saint is fused with medieval legend of a benevolent giant who helped travellers across rivers.
From this sublime meaning to such a humble object as a “wheelbarrow” (a “barrow” is for carrying, from that Old Engl. beran); the essential figure in poetry and language itself ( “metaphor”); and reaching back to the very moment of our “birth”: what unfathomable mystery and power in this word, in all its vast reach and its countless forms!
Good words! ¡Buenas palabras!
Pablo J. Davis
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Nov. 20-26, 2015 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 157 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”. Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (Aamerican Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).