Back to the Garden

I’ve been hiding from the variants. Not delta and omicron; they’re all Greek to me. I just follow the rules … and pray.

I’ve been avoiding the variants of the word of the year (WOTY) selections. Lately, the dictionaries have been taking aim at the way we live, and how we talk about it.

If you’re yearning to breathe free, you’ll get as much fresh air from WOTY as through an N95 mask. (I lasted 30 seconds before tearing mine off and taking the blue plate special.)

Not fully vexed? Consider Oxford Languages’ word of the year: vax. Oxford wrote, “By September it was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year. We are now seeing it in a wide range of informal contexts, from vax sites and vax cards to getting vaxxed and being fully vaxxed.”

If you’re anti-vax, good news: According to U.S. News, Tuvalu, an island republic halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has no reported cases of COVID. The bad news is that they keep it that way by closing their borders. So good luck if you want to move there.

Taking another shot, Merriam-Webster chose vaccine as its WOTY. “This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, told The Associated Press. The prominence of vaccines in the news led to Merriam-Webster logging an increase of 1,048% in lookups last year.

If you think they’re milking it, you’re right. Vaccine is borrowed from the New Latin vaccina, which goes back to Latin’s feminine vaccinus, meaning “of or from a cow.” Why a cow? It’s related to fluid from cowpox pustules used in inoculations.

Ben Zimmer, Wall Street Journal’s language columnist, heads the selection committee of the American Dialect Society (ADS), granddaddy of the WOTY. Once, I asked Zimmer if he knew the next winner. He said, “No, but hum a few bars and I’ll fake it.”
(OK, I made that up. This needs some comic relief.)

As if COVID wasn’t dispiriting enough, ADS grimly reaped the political news. The WOTY they chose was insurrection.

Zimmer explained, “More than a year after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the nation is still coming to grips with what happened that day. At the time, words like coup, sedition, and riot were used to describe the disturbing events at the Capitol, but insurrection — a term for a violent attempt to take control of the government — is the one that many felt best encapsulates the threat to democracy experienced that day. The lasting effects of that insurrection will be felt for years to come.”

Which sadly reminds me of the old joke:

“The peasants are revolting.”

“You can say that again!”

I was feeling ill. But then the doctor arrived — Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson was a caustic wit, but as his friend Hester Thrale said, “All he said was rough, but all he did was gentle” (Samuel Johnson’s Insults: A Compendium of Snubs, Sneers, Slights and Effronteries from the Eighteenth-Century Master, Jack Lynch).

Johnson was frank about his own limitations in searching for definitions. In his “Preface to the English Dictionary” (1755), he acknowledged that “to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.”

In January, Johnson’s Dictionary Online announced their own Word of the Year: “Gardener — He that attends or cultivates gardens.”

The word was “selected because the sentiment of tending one’s garden expresses an optimism for future growth.”
Ahh! I can breathe again.

The symbolism of the garden is obvious. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.”

Of course, the origin goes back to the Origin. (Does that qualify me as a tautologist?) But I won’t say much about the Garden of Eden. As Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov wrote (Sefer Haparshiyos), “We have no concept of what it was, and what grandeur and pleasure was there.” But he adds, “Although we are far from this grandeur … nevertheless we can imagine an iota of its goodness.”

Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, says the root of the word ganan (gardener) means “protect for man’s use” (Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch). He relates it to magen (shield).

Adam’s role was to work and protect the garden. So, the garden is both a blessing and a responsibility.

In 1975, Yeshivas Ohr Somayach opened a branch in the northern Israel village of Givat Ada, and I moved there to teach.

One day, I pushed Rabbi Mendel Weinbach’s nostalgia button. I told him that my wife had started growing a “victory garden” (private garden during WWII rationing). Reb Mendel turned wistful and said, “Wow … my family had a victory garden. And, even with our victory garden, we still won the war!”

Praise the L-rd and pass the nutrition.

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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