Apples of Gold in a Setting of Silver


Last night I wrote a fable. It’s fabulous. And by that I mean it’s a fable.

With me?

Words really mean things. I want to be someone whose appreciation of this fact fuels more intentional investigation into word origins.walt

I only have one book on my shelf that I can think of right now about word origins in English. That book is pretty amazing (now I’m thinking of what amazing history the word “amazing” might have), but I ought to have more. I almost have aught.

I remember hearing Ken Myers talking to some fellow about how he was grading a student paper where it was said that a boat had “arrived half-way across the ocean.” The fellow was objecting to this use because the word “arrive” has in it the notion of coming ashore. So one cannot arrive half-way. It means to get there. Specifically to “come to shore.”

So, at Hutchmoot this idea of the power and origin in the original power of words arrived on the sandy beach of my mind. Courtesy of Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Walt (I call him Walt, because I was close enough to yank his pony tail–but I didn’t, amazingly) was amazing. <—–  I haven’t looked that up yet.

I felt a thousand things as he spoke, which I feel incapable of putting into adequate words. I feel like a clever monkey trying to explain to Beethoven (who is deaf and dead) the joys of flinging poo. I felt validated, inspired, full, hopeful, peaceful, joyful and the list goes on and on like a long, long list.

But here is one thing. Walt knows words.

He inhabits language like the oldest local. He speaks as one with authority, as if in his naming the thing may finally–again–be itself. It was not that words were used by him, or that he was commanding with them. I can aspire to that. It was more.

He cooperated with words. Co-operated. He and the words were on the same side. He has arrived on their side after a long, literate life’s journey.

His relation of the history of schap (forever on the chalkboard of my mind) was a significant life event for me. Because, in so many words, he told me who I am.

I am a schap. A shaper. This is how he talked about storytellers.

And words are the tools of my trade. I will use them, care for them, add more to my bag and hope that one day I will do more than use them. I will inhabit them. Know them like an intimate friend. Partner with them. Conjure up with them a vision for those without eyes to see. And tell stories.

Like Walt.


  1. David Knapp

    Speechless or I am without speech.

    All I can say is that this introvert who ponders on words all day is appreciative when somebody takes the time to care for the words they use.

  2. Bernie

    I must say the analogy of being a “clever monkey trying to explain …. the joys of flinging poo” is awesome.

    C.S. Lewis also has an amazing book called “Studies in Words” that I thoroughly enjoyed, and would commend to any who are interested in etymology. It’s available at


  3. EmJ

    Indeed, I must heartily agree with Mr. Knapp above. Well said.

    And, as a fellow possessor of The Superior Person’s Book of Words, I feel that I should pass on a further recommendation: The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. A few years ago I found a used copy in a local store and asked a friend who had moved away if her husband had, perchance, traded in that very copy. Her shocked response was that said volume was considered a priceless treasure, not to be parted with for mere pocket change.

    So glad I was able to be there to hear Walt and his marvelous cooperation with words, as well as be encouraged to refine and use carefully the shaping tools of language. Glad to know that while I scribble away on whatever continent I happen to be on, others are likewise employed, pursuing the same goal.

  4. Lanier Ivester

    Good stuff, Sam. Well, except the bit about the monkey. That was kind of yucky. But, then again, if by ‘good’ I meant ‘elegant and succinct’, ‘well-said’ and ‘getting-the-point-across-with-some-awesome-word-play-of-your-own’, then I guess I’ll have to admit the monkey analogy was pretty darn amazing. And not just in the ‘dreadful’ sense. In the 1704 ‘wonderful’ sense, as well.

  5. Dan K

    I’ve always thought a terrific comedy bit could be written around an Indy Jones type of character slashing thru jungles to wipe dirt off of some ancient tomb wall & make some deep etymological discovery.

    West-Virginia Smith and the Researchers of the Lost Snark.
    It could happen. The beard gives you some adventure cred.

    I like the analogy; around work we often refer to general confusion as being “a monkey doing calculus”. It’s great to find the next evolutionary step in the monkey analogy world.

  6. Matthew Clark – simple, super-fun site

    Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield – fascinating stuff about word and meaning development

    Splintered Light by Verlyn Fleiger – book on Tolkien’s exploration of “light and logos” in Middle Earth

    Man, I do love word-mining. Sam I want to have a long dinner with you someday. A beardly co-hort of sorts. I was so moved by Walt’s talk. It did come out of him like a living reality. It never felt like he was positing propositions. It felt like he was describing a realm in which he resides.

    That reminds me of a basic theme I got from the weekend- immersion vs extraction. During the songwriting panel someone asked about the procedure for song making, do you pick a bible verse and try to extract a song from it? The answer was no, we immerse ourselves in this relationship with Jesus. We let our hearts and minds and bodies sink down deeply into this reality and then from the overflow of our hearts we write.

    This is also like the difference between the Old and New Covenants: one external and oppressive, the other internal and transformative. I felt like Walk was speaking from having traveled in transformation. So the best invitation then is to plunge (baptism comes to mind) into God’s life/story/work. Then we live in the realm of his truth and everything we shape or express will carry lovely fragrance of the flowers of that land we long for.

    All that and monkey poo too.

  7. S. D. Smith


    “That and monkey poo, too.” Sounds like I have a title for anyone dumb enough to write a biography of me. Maybe I’ll autobiograph that myself.

    I hesitated to include that part about the poo, but I felt it was the most accurate way to express my own abilities as relates to using words. But maybe that is obvious from the whole post. 🙂 Consider it an underlining of that fact. Underlined in…nevermind.

    You guys are hilarious. Dan K! Dashing in and challenging the great Aaron Roughton for his crown with that priceless comment. Wow. Guffaw-inducing stuff. And now I have a face to go with the name setting me straight about Chesterton and causing me to giggle.

    And thanks for all the book suggestions, obviously I have great need of some. Like a man who once needed help said, “I need some help.”

    I love the Rabbit Room like a man who loves something a lot.

  8. Chris Slaten

    Matthew, that immersion vs. extraction theme was one that has stuck with me since the Moot as well, though I wouldn’t have thought to put it in those terms.

    S.D., I was just reading a book called “Mysteries of The Alphabet” by Quaknin and would recommend it if you are in the mood for doing some more word digging. Instead of words though, it traces back each letter of the alphabet through all of it’s origins and meanings. It is designed well, with creative illustrations. More of an extensive academic coffee table read than one you’d read from start to finish.

    Also, Walker Percy was into studying language and that really comes through in his novel “The Second Coming” where one of his protagnists has been through multiple rounds of electroshock therapy and is learning to speak again. Great book. He also explores language more explicitly in a series of essays called “Message in a Bottle”.

  9. Matthew Clark

    the immersion vs. extraction theme keeps showing up repeatedly- another example is personal vs mechanical or effection vs affection … all the ways that we selfishly seek to simply extract and objectify anything and everything, isolate it and employ it for purely practical self-satisfaction.

    Anyway, rather than extract the useful bits for our own use (which is what a consumer machine does) we get this better way from Jesus: instead of simply functioning we are invited to live. Instead of simply being ‘productive” we see the way of relationship is not primarily about ‘efficiency toward product’ but more about the accumulation of story, affection, and precious though seemingly worthless things like starlight and slender rainbows on spider-webs, or a single lost sheep.

    In the ‘extraction’ paradigm beauty is only good in so far as it is useful to make money. It’s a tool, just another machine. With God it is a grace, a little silent touch on the forearm or a sigh shared in grief or gladness.

    I was reading a Seamus Heaney poem today and thinking of how a good poem is a sort of habitation – a place you go and live for a little while. For us, in the Kingdom of Jesus beauty becomes a kind of realm in which to dwell and be transformed. God’s beauty is a command to obey and a place to abide.

  10. David Van Buskirk

    Are there any plans to publish the hutchmoot talks in an MP3 format? A podcast or something perhaps.

    Sorry if this has already been addressed somewhere. I have been been away from my computer for a spell.

  11. J Chris

    Well said, Sam! And well written. This power to co-create with words has been the strongest echo of my brief time in the cosmos of Mr. Wangerin. Choosing those descriptors that have the greatest meaning and purpose to the audience I am called to communicate with. That is a glorious participation and one that I am thrilled to engage in!

    And may I just add that though my medium of choice uses words to great affect, the choices I make in the visuals that I convey in film are to be guarded just as vigilantly. How poorly this is managed in so many films! Someday, I will have to tell you more about how deeply this sense of responsibility runs for me.

  12. Pete Peterson

    We’ve got one of the sessions as well as the discussion panels recorded and plan to use them for podcasts once we get time to edit them.

    We weren’t able to record Walt’s talk due to his contract.

  13. Laura Peterson

    I have to also recommend “History in English Words” by Owen Barfield. Despite it’s lofty title it’s a very friendly length – one of the few textbooks that I kep from college (and hey, Barfield was pals with C.S. Lewis, don’tcha know.)

    Re: what Matthew said about a poem being a place of habitation…didn’t Walt say something about a good story becoming “the cosmos” while you’re experiencing it? The “place you go and live for a little while?” Time to re-read my notes.

  14. Ron Block


    I found The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology for $20 on AbeBooks. That’s a great site for used books. Lots of good book recommendations on this post. Sam: it was like, so totally cool and everything about like how words like mean so much and stuff. And everything.

    Listening to Walt was like having a grandfather take me by the shoulders, look me in the eye, and say, “This is your true purpose. Stop losing sight of it, and get moving forward.” I would pay good money for a recording of that talk; after he began I realized I’d left my journal in my laptop bag up on the podium. If anyone has some decent notes they could send me I would send lavish expressions of gratitude your way. (“O my father, and the delight of my eyes…”)

  15. S. D. Smith


    Hey guys, sorry I’m slow to respond, am in the thick of it a bit at present. Can’t wait to read your suggestions carefully and get a couple of those books. Very kind of you to respond, really.

    Also fascinating stuff to consider.

  16. Phil W

    Sam, is this another way of saying “watch your language?” People are always saying that to me, and I just don’t get what they’re after.

  17. Phil W

    Oh, I forgot to say two more things. Thanks for the etymology recommendations. I noticed the Barnhart dictionary and wondered if it was a good one or if I should seek something better. I’ll look for it on and offline. Of course, I could pick up a set of the OED, but my house isn’t big enough.

    Sam, I was listening to that volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal this weekend. It was a beautiful interview with a poet who loves words more than ideas or stories for his poems.

  18. David Ritterbush

    Enjoyed this post very much, though I found it later than many others (smile). I always appreciate the discovery of another (or many others, if the comments be true) word-miner. I love words, though I still find they often elude- there’s probably some tragedy in that.

    But continue being a radical (origin: radius, as in, to the root) of words…

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