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Etymology For Beginners

By Christie Cochrell-


Florence would have liked to be named for the famous Italian city, with its Etruscans (the tower builders) and its bridge of gold. Or, adding an F for femininity, for the Friar in Shakespeare’s play, with his knowledge of herbs and family politics, his role in that famously bad ending. Or for the Saint, patron of poor people and school children, comedians and cooks, martyred on an iron grill in the third century. (Another bad ending.) Or even for Quebec’s great river, bedded in an ancient geologic depression. That she'd been named instead for her Aunt Florence Wilson, with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever, other than her stolid decency, had set in motion a lifetime of yearning and making do.

Her fascination with names, for one. (Flo—Flora—Flory, all considered and rejected as not suiting her at all.) With words, more broadly—and what they meant, what they implied, and where they led, both backwards and forwards. Her need to be part of the great world and its wonders, setting off a lifelong quest for connection. For following the rivers (and their flow—so maybe after all, then, Flo would name her perfectly) from source across uncertain boundaries to outlet (River of the Algonquins, Big Water Current); the aqueducts from snowmelt in a slow descent to the Villa d’Este’s glittering fountains via Rilke’s poetry; the nightingale (also related indirectly by her name) from nurse to lovers’ near mistake.

She yearned incessantly during her lonely days on Aunt Florence’s horsehair sofa (often grounded as punishment for some childish shortcoming or another) on the outskirts of the direly unfabulous Oregon town, out in the middle of nowhere, and read voraciously the books left by her older cousin Matthew when he fled, losing her unformed self in those seductive words—in ideas and worlds far, far away from the dot on the map whose notable history in Wikipedia comprised the building of a school house and the founding of a prohibition league.

“Dinner’s on,” Auntie would say, dishing out uninspired meatloaf and mushy green beans. Or, “You fix something for yourself tonight; I've got my Dorcas Group in town.”

Florence had ended up in her aunt's care when her own parents, continuing their work with Save the Children when they felt she was finally old enough to leave for months on end, had been killed in the Mexico City earthquake in September 1985, where they’d stopped on their way home from Bolivia.

She’d dreamed of working for the awe-inspiring OED, in Oxford, England. She’d found a list of the best places in the world to study Etymology. The universities of Amsterdam, Melbourne, Toronto, or Hong Kong; a technological university in Singapore; Stanford, in California. Oxford’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology, and Phonetics tempted her greatly, but she felt daunted when she looked at the application process—and her mediocre grades at home. Not challenged or inspired, she hadn’t applied herself, wanting only to read and follow at leisure the glistening snail trails of words. And so she let them lead her no further than Oregon State University, in Corvallis. She was encouraged by the notion that all that comes between word and world is one thin L. (“Oh L,” she'd say, whenever feeling she’d let herself down.)

After graduating Cum Laude, she was lucky enough to find a job with one of the online dictionaries, in California, and as a bonus marry a fellow employee—an earnest IT specialist. The job was satisfying, but the relationship hadn’t gone well. “Bedded in an ancient geologic depression” pretty well described it, though “sinkhole” would be another word for it. The job outlasted the marriage, barely. But then the company was hit by the typical round of outsourcing, downsizing, and layoffs.

So there she was, in middle age, midstream, without a source of income or savings beyond a frugal half a year. No obvious way forward. Those aqueducts in another country, or alternate dimension, altogether. Her choices, like those of pretty much every language and linguistics major, had been shortsighted and bad.

She sat out weeks of January rains, the gray seeping deep into her. She had a single room with a shared bath in a shared house near the intersection of two freeways, and knew herself to be the odd one out (working professionals preferred). She kept her door closed against the younger and more sociable others, ate mostly Safeway egg salad sandwiches at her small desk, and hid out above all from the house cat with mismatched and judgmental eyes—Zooey, after the Salinger novel (Franny had been run over by a self-driving Waymo car before Christmas)—who didn't like her and made piteous yowling noises whenever he spied her.

She’d just sent out twelve or thirteen résumés, which always made her feel worthless, when unexpected news reached her. A legacy. Aunt Florence had died, at 99, back in her life-long Oregon home, and had left her estate divided equally between her niece, Florence Gainsboro (typically, Florence’s ex- no famous English artist, just Freddy Gainsboro of Puyallup, Washington), and her son, Matthew Wilson-Morissette, who’d fancied up his name since he’d left home—such hyphenation of great interest to the etymologist as well.

So Florence and Matthieu, as he was now—done with roaming the world as an au pair (“bro pair”) and then, burned out after a summer with two little psychopath twins in Brussels, a traveling bartender at backpacker hostels—returned to the house in Oregon, the town unrecognizably transformed. Energized by computer startups, a “Zoom town.” Without having to think a lot about it they decided right away they’d keep the house and completely revamp it.

The estate was enormous, they were astonished to learn from Presley Agüera, their cool attorney with deep purple hair and an attractive short boxed beard. Florence the elder had, it seemed, blindly invested her husband Thomas’s life insurance in Apple and Coca-Cola stocks, picked from a list because they were the only names she recognized—though she would have had Granny Smith and McIntosh in mind, or probably Red Delicious.

“Legacy: noun,” Florence informed Matthieu and Presley over the take-out Indian (fish curry, chicken biryani, vegetable korma for the vegan attorney) and a bottle of Taittinger Brut Blanc de Blancs Presley had brought. “Late 14c., legacie, ‘body of persons sent on a mission’—that’s you—from Medieval Latin legatia, from Latin legatus ‘ambassador, envoy, deputy,’ noun use of past participle of legare ‘send with a commission, appoint as deputy, appoint by a last will.’” And, her favorite: “French legs ‘a legacy’ is a bad spelling of Old French lais (a lease, a letting, a leaving).” Or in short, a miracle.


“You saved me,” Florence confided to Matthieu later that night, after Presley had left. “All those great books you left here, when you went away.”

“No, you saved me,” Matthieu answered. “Since you were with my mother, I could leave. It was the only way.”

“I owed her, big time,” Florence said. “She was so kind to take me in.”

“Didn’t you ever want to travel?”

Florence couldn't answer him at once, feeling the absences and losses, disappointments and recalculations that had gone into her definition of herself. The etymology of Florence Wilson Gainsboro. In the end she played with her phone screen and brought up a part of a poem by Jane Hirschfield she’d saved among other important words, phrases, slipstreams of thought. She handed it to him to read.

There is a lake, Lalla Ded sang, no larger than one seed of mustard, that all things return to. O heart, if you will not, cannot, give me the lake,

then give me the song.

“I haven't had the lake,” she clarified, slowly, a little sad. “Not like you have. But I have been blessed with the song.”

She told him about Lalla Ded, 14th-century Kashmiri saint and mystic poet, in on the beginnings of the Kashmiri language.

“You've had at least as much of the world as I have, really,” he ventured, seeing the worlds she found in every word of every line—endless vistas of words. “And you didn’t have to endure les jumeaux psychopathes. Those twins destroyed every shred of my confidence, my misguided belief that I was meant to be a knight-errant, shepherding tender youth.”


“I’ve just learned I was adopted,” Matthieu remarked with studied nonchalance one late November night in front of the fire, looking unseeingly from the sofa where they were sprawled toward the William Morris tiles he’d mortared in below the mantlepiece. He’d been going through boxes of papers, and had been stunned by what he found.

Florence ached for him, at this momentous loss of definition, and touched his hand in sympathy. He seemed okay, really; said only, watching the flames dance,

“We're not related, after all.”

“Except by the ‘Wilson,’” Florence amended. “By our name and proclivities.”

“But I'm not really Wilson any longer,” he pointed out, grinning. “Nor are you.”

“Thus words evolve . . . and their connections.”

“I like the connections especially,” he said dreamily, taking her hand in his, fingers entwined.

“And so do I.” She always had. She searched his face, stunned herself now— not having been taken off guard so utterly since the day she had happened on the deceptively simple Japanese word mu, whose characters were said to mingle door and sun, but went on to reveal entire thought systems, and relate to essentially every aspect of life.

And so in February, in the little church of Dante’s Beatrice, in one of the oldest neighborhoods of Florence, Italy (a whim of the new bride’s), they were married—united in much more than name, and house, and history, and love of the foreign and far. There’d always been that element of chance and change in all the words Florence had ever known, and it was to that witchery she had been drawn especially. The shapeshifting, the sly transformations that lit not just them, their cognates and offshoots and all those second cousins twice removed, but also those who dealt in them, like spice traders or traffickers in heady elixirs. And in her, in that Flo of her that never had been seriously blocked or slowed, Mattieu was swept up, swept along, giddy with lexical felicities.


Christie Cochrell's work has been published by Catamaran, Lowestoft Chronicle, Cumberland River Review, Tin House, and a variety of others, receiving several awards and Pushcart nominations. Chosen as New Mexico Young Poet of the Year while growing up in Santa Fe, she's more recently published a volume of collected poems,Contagious Magic. She lives by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California—too often lured away from her writing by otters, pelicans, and seaside walks.

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