All the recent events over in Crimea put me in a somber mood, my thoughts turning to that strange old aristocrat Lord Alfred Tennyson and his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade about pointless and foolish deaths on that peninsula 150 years ago.
Although thousands of soldiers from Russia and Britain suffered horribly, the Treaty of Paris at the end of that war lead indirectly to Romania becoming an autonomous state under the Hohenzollern King Carol. I wonder how many people in this country know that.
And then all of it reminded me of a question someone asked several months ago – why does the word baraj in Romanian mean both “a dam” as well as “playoffs”?
It’s a very good question and it goes right to the heart of Latin. The Romanian word baraj is taken directly from French barrage. But in English the word “barrage” means a metaphorical (or sometimes literal) hail of gunfire. You can ask someone a “barrage” of questions or a sports team can score a “barrage” of points.
Both the English word and Romania word have the same root – “barrier”, which means “something that separates”.
Romanian baraj being a dam = some kind of wall or obstruction in a river that “separates” one part of the river from the other.
Romanian baraj being playoffs = a series of games (matches) which “separate” out the winners from the losers.
English “barrage” = from a French term tir de barrage, referring to a hail of artillery fire meant to keep a separation of infantry troops preparing to attack and the enemy (in modern US military terminology this would now be called “suppressive fire”).
English/Romanian “bar”, meaning a place that serves drinks and/or food = the workers making the food/drinks are behind a separating barrier (shortened just to “bar”) from the customers.
English “bar”, meaning an association of lawyers = originally (in London) the lawyers stood to one side of a separating barrier from the prisoners.
British “barrister”, meaning a lawyer = again from the old terminology that referred to standing on one side of the separating barrier in a courtroom during the proceedings.
And last but not least, the English word “bar” (sometimes “sandbar”), referring to a bank of sand across a harbor or river mouth.
Which brings us again full circle to Lord Tennyson and his poem Crossing the Bar, which uses the imagery of a man crossing a (sand)bar and putting out to sea as a metaphor for death.
I think it’s one of the most beautiful things ever written in the English language.
Sunset and evening star
and one clear call for me.
And may there be no moaning of the bar
when I put out to sea.
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
too full for sound and foam
when that which drew from out the boundless deep
turns again home!
Twilight and evening bell
and after that the dark.
And may there be no sadness of farewell
when I embark.
For, though from out our born of Time and Place
the flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
when I have crossed the bar.