Sunday, August 7, 2011

umbra out of the shadows

I love words. Not surprising, seeing as I am a writer. Sometimes I write quickly and add page upon page. Other times, I spend minutes, hours, lingering and laboring over a single word. Which subtle difference of meaning is best in this case? Which word adds to the rhythm, enhances the atmosphere, vibrates with the tone?

But when does a single word get to be in the spotlight, so to speak? Almost never. For tomorrow, take a word... and ponder its origins, its shades of meaning, its various definitions, its sound, its commonality or uniqueness.

For me, the word I chose is umbrage.

Most commonly, the word umbrage is used when someone takes offense at something. "New Hampshire hospitals take umbrage over cuts by legislature" reads a headline. Actually, I probably wouldn't use the word this way as the implication should be that one takes an offense over a social snub or something rude rather than a perceived injustice (as in this case.)

We have deviated from the original meaning of the word. Less common definitions of umbrage include the shade from foliage and finally a shadowy appearance. In 15th century France, umbrage was just this sort of shade beneath the trees... no negative connotation to the word at all. In his 1426 translation of De Guileville's Pilgrimage of the life of man, John Lydgate wrote:
... my vysage whiche is clowded with vmbrage...
And although we now only 'take' umbrage, it used to be given. Translating the Historie of the council of Trent, Sir Nathaniel Brent recorded in 1620:
He... therefore besought them to take away all those words that might give him any vmbrage.
Slowly, this notion of being in the shadows and feeling displeasure became intertwined. J. K. Rowling cleverly referenced this shadowy aversion in naming a character Professor Umbridge.

Yet, why did shade become a negative? Darkness makes sense, but the shade from trees is often a respite from heat and blazing sun. With a sense of this grandeur and protection, Milton wrote:
Where highest woods, impenetrable
To star or sunlight, spread their umbrage broad.
The root of the word, umbrage, is umbra... and this word has an important astronomical meaning. An umbra is a complete shadow, when the source of light is totally cut off... as in an eclipse. Check out Nick Strobel's cool explanation (and movies) of umbras and penumbras.

Here is a helpful diagram of a lunar eclipse with the umbra and penumbra labeled. By the way, a penumbra is the partial imperfect shadow outside of the complete shadow (the umbra.)

The umbra can also be the constant companion of someone or something... as in your shadow. In "Peter Pan," the lead character has a lot of trouble with his shadow. He loses it, just as he symbolically has no past. If, in a simple way, light represent happiness and knowledge and dark represents fear and ignorance, it is only with one set against the other that the totality can be understood. In simple terms, one can't understand happiness without sadness. And as children grow, the completeness of their experience becomes more like that in which there is a light source which throws their shadow into the scene. Wendy, who lives in a more adult and complete world, knows how to reattach Peter's shadow. Also, some kind soul took the time to remake his shadow....

For Peter, the reattachment of his shadow leads to the resumption of his total arrogance: "Oh, the cleverness of me!" and his singing of "I've gotta crow!" Here is the Mary Martin original version. Perhaps Peter's arrogance has to do with Patricia Cox Miller's implications in her book, Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture:
The umbra -- shade, shadow, uninvited guest -- is invited in; as a dream, the guest becomes host to a sensuous pleasure that is all the more real for being an imitation, and all the more an artifice for being imaginal, "only" a dream.
Peter lives in a "dream world," a world of pure fantasy wherein all guests become part of his pleasureful imagination. Even Hook is a "fun" adversary for Peter. What is scary is "growing up" and the inevitable reality that comes with it -- the shadow that stays forever attached and is only, as Wendy points out "just a shadow."

Part of the strangeness of words is connotation. The innate sense we develop that a word is negative or positive. Umbra clearly has attained negative status. Yet, in many ways, it could present us with a completeness, a sense of fantasy, a playful imaginative state, or a relief from physical discomfort. I think today, as the rain pours down outside, I will revel in the umbrage that this ponderous weather enables.

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