STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/09/2015

The Presence of the Past

Each year STILLPOINT and the Jerusalem and Athens Forum sponsor an essay contest. The tenth cohort of JAF participants tackled the theme of “The Presence of the Past.” Christy Urbano ’16 wrote the winning essay; a shortened form appears here. Amaylah Israel ’16 and Maria Constantine ’14 received honorable mention. Read all three essays, in full, at

In Which an English Major Pretends to Understand History (abridged)

My high school English teacher taught us a dictionary game. Open to a random page and pick a word. Colloquium. Now follow the roots. Cum loqui. Literally “to speak with” in the Latin. Loquor, loqui, locutum. Circumlocution. Circum loqui. “To speak around.”

We liked eponyms also. They preserve a little more than the skeletons of dead languages; they hold people, too. Sandwich, named for the Earl of Sandwich who greatly enjoyed the food, is a common example. Rubik’s Cube is named for its inventor Erno Rubik, a sculptor and professor of architecture who was not trying to make a puzzle but a mechanism that could withstand the independently moving pieces. It only became a puzzle when he attempted to sort those moving pieces back out.

The element mercury and the adjective mercurial both derive from the Roman god Mercury, who was constantly in movement as the patron god of messages, travelers, and trickery. Duwamish Chief Seattle, for whom the capital of Washington is named, advocated for ecological responsibility and native Americans’ land rights. Draco, from whose name we derive the adjective draconian, was a magistrate of 7th century Athens who liberally applied the death penalty in his legal code. Whole lives get tangled up in these short concatenations of letters.

And if individual words can contain lives, nursery rhymes can contain whole historical movements. “Humpty Dumpty” was really a cannon used in the English Civil War. Colloquially, “Pop Goes the Weasel” translates to “pawn the winter coat,” and the full poem lists the variety of basic necessities—from food to a ball of thread and a needle—for which the narrator must pawn his coat. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is an account of taxation under King Edward I. Printed with its original ending, the narrator’s “three bags full” of wool go “One for the Master,” the king, “One for the Dame,” the church, “And none for the little boy / Who cries down the lane,” to support the farmer’s family. “Oranges and lemons / Say the bells of St. Clemens, / You owe me five farthings / Say the bells of St. Martins” likely describes the churches along the route of condemned men to their executions.

The past is present, whether we like to remember it or not. I see it embedded in the words we speak: dead languages trapped between letters, people within eponyms, and tragedies beneath children’s poems. For me, these stories are gifts, but they are also reminders that we, too, will be inevitably and inexorably present in the languages and lives of the future, for better or worse.

Christy Urbano, an English major, is studying in 2014-2015 in Gordon’s program in Oxford, England. She is from Coastesville, Pennsylvania.


Christy Urbano