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Word of the Day: lid (member)

Sigurd asked me a while ago about the word LID (member). And I am sorry to say that, because of my obsessions with emotions, vegetables and, this week, water, I did not come round to investigating Sigurd’s LID (member), metaphorically speaking that is. 


Talking about metaphors, after having mused about 130 Dutch words in these last six months I feel as if I have become so much more susceptible to the metaphorical qualities of words and their sounds, origins, historical development, kinships… I cannot stop thinking about words.

It is as if they are living organisms. Each time a word is used somewhere by someone it gathers more meaning. As a word evolves in time, it stores more treasures. In Old English a vocabulary used to be called a ‘word-hoard’. The Dutch still call a vocabulary a ‘woordenschat’ (word treasury) and in this hoard some words are true jewels or valuable poems.

One of these short poems is the three-letter word LID (member). It is an authentic Germanic word that has no kinship with other linguistic families such as the Romance languages. English lost its ‘liþ’ in the Middle Ages and stole its ‘member’ from Old French ‘membre’ and from Latin ‘membrum’ (limb, member of the body, part). Yes, English still has ‘limb’, a variation of LID, but though it has more or less the same meaning, it sounds so much lamer than LID or ‘member’.

The last couple of days I dived into prehistoric Netherlands guided by several Roman writers and discovered the origins of WAD (mudflat), GRACHT (canal) and SLUIS (lock). Looking at historical descriptions I noticed that several writers and scholars compared the land with a human body. In such a metaphor water and the extensive system of waterways can be seen as blood and the blood circulation. It is a two way metaphor, because one of the words they used after Harvey’s description of the systemic blood circulation in 1628, was the word KANAAL (channel).

The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) used the body as a metaphor for the state in ‘Leviathan’ (1651). In his view the body of the state is made up of all the individual bodies of its citizens. The citizens then are the literal members of the body and the head is the sovereign.

His contemporary, the ‘universally’ talented diplomat, poet, architect and Hagenaar Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) worked for several heads of the Dutch republic. As a poet and artist he was fascinated by the body and used the metaphor in several ways.

After the early death of his wife, he created a country house with gardens on the Vliet in Voorburg in 1640. He called this ‘country-retreat’ Hofwijck. Hofwijck is a pun on ‘wijk’ (flight away…) and ‘hof’ (…from court). It was modelled on the principles as laid down by the Roman architect Vitruvius (85-20 before CE). Peter Davidson and Adriaan van der Weel explain the idea behind the house and garden in their book ‘A Selection of the Poems of Sir Constantijn Huygens’, Amsterdam, 1996):

‘The garden [of Hofwijk] was laid out as an elongated rectangle (125 x 410 m) which was intended to represent the symmetry and proportian of the Vitruvian human figure (most famously represented by Leonardo Da Vinci’s well-known drawing of a man simultaneously occupying a square and a circle). The garden was composed of trees, grass and water, rather than flowers, and was intersected and surrounded by canals. The villa, surrounded by a moat, represented the head. An orchard, flanked by avenues of trees, represented the chest and arms; a wooded area represented the legs. Simultaneously, the design of the garden symbolized the path of redemption, starting at the “feet”, in the woods, which symbolized the terrestrial world, working up through the perfected Earthly Paradise of the orchard area, to the contemplation of God in the villa itself. This highly intellectualized structuring of the physical environment is made explicit in the poem “Hofwijk”.’

‘Hofwijck’ is a must-see museum. In April this year it opened its doors after it was completely renovated. You can walk along the members of the body in the garden and roam around the head of the house where there is an exhibition about Constantijn and about his son the famous scientist Christiaan.

Nowadays the word LID (yes, a ‘het-word’ with an irregular plural: LEDEN!) is not used for bodily parts anymore. Except when we refer to the entire body (LICHAAM or LIJF) with the expression ‘gezond van lijf en leden’ (sound in body and mind) and of course, when we talk about the male reproductive organ, which is called: HET MANNELIJK LID (the virile member).

So a LID has evolved from a physical part of the body to the metaphorical part of an organization. ‘Membership’ is called ‘lidmaatschap’. A ‘gezinslid’ or ‘lid van de familie’ is a family member. A ‘lidmaat’ is a member of a church.

Let’s finish these ruminations with the poetical words of Huygens, and in Davidson’s and Van der Weel’s translation (from the above mentioned book).

‘Kwill Hofwijck, als het is, ‘kwill Hofwijck, als ‘t sal wesen,
Den Vreemdeling doen sien, den Hollander doen lesen.
Soo swack is menschen-werck, het duert min als papier.
De tijd slijt struijck en steen: eens salmen seggen, Hier,
Hier was’t daer Hofwijck stond, nu Puijn en Queeck en Aerde.
En dan sal Hofwijck noch stean bloeijen in sijn’ waerde:
Ja waerde, sooder oijt ijet waerdighs van mijn’ hand
De Jaren heeft verduert en ouderdom vermant.

[Before my voice grows hoarse, before my pen grows old.]
I’d make the stranger see and make the Dutchman read
Hofwijk as it stands now, the Hofwijk that shall be.
So frail are human works, paper outlasts them all,
Time wears the shrub and stone: in time it will be said,
‘Here once his Hofwijk stood, now rubble, weeds and spoil.’
And then shall Hofwijk stand, still flowering in its pride
If any words that come, my reader, from my hand
Have ever braved the years and conquered ruinous time.