A word with a dry wind whispering through it /s/, speaking of a place full of empty (o), defoliated, deflated like a balloon. You’ll likely think of a dry plain, looking like the surface of Mars, a spot so sorry that even the sun has been stolen from it. The valley of the shadow of death, perhaps… no one around… you’re so late, too late; all is gone. Perhaps it never was there in the first place.
And one may feel desolate at heart, too. It is so easy to transfer the barrenness, the sense of desertion and desertification, to the heartscape and mindscape: no sun up in the sky… how a person might feel if isolated, cut off from all human company.
Indeed, although the word readily suggests the loss of sun (de and sol), it is solus that is the true Latin heart of this word originally, via solare, “make lonely”. The de is here in the sense “to the bottom; completely”, as in denude, derelict, deplore, deliquesce, decoct. Thus first of all it is the depths of loneliness, all around you boiled away and you left with you alone and no one to relate to. I’m put in mind of a poem I wrote in high school (apologies if the vagaries of formatting result in indelicate alignments):
|Now I’m in an empty room||tomb|
|The walls so far between||clean|
|The ceiling very high||sky|
|And I so all alone||stone|
|Just standing on a spot||dot|
|In the middle of the floor||more|
|And all that I say echoes||knows|
|In this empty place||space|
But what poetry is there in a desolate place? In truth, barely the least ode. No doubt echoes of desert and perhaps the hint of lack of sun – and soil, also sol – contributed to the shift in sense to a place where there is not one but no one, no one and nothing. In the main, it passed from “lonely” to “lacking” to “barren”; at times it appears to have been confused with dissolute.
But just as the English sense has reduced from one person to none, a place without traffic at all, and emotional desolation is reduction to a sorry state indeed, we may look to another language to see how excessive traffic may rub a word nearly smooth of sense: French désolé, commonly the short way to say je suis désolé, which literally means “I am desolate” but has come to be a sorry statement – that is, a statement of “sorry.” As when (for instance in The Killing Fields) the officer hands back the passport with barely a shake of the head and a “Désolé, monsieur.” The “sorry” that really means “sigh, please go away” – if it means that much.
Well, as word taster David Moody has reminded me, Lena Horne has gone away, and there is no sun up in the sky. This is a new desolation, and not just a mumbled “Sorry for your loss”; as David writes, “To be truly désolé is to have the very sun snatched from out of the sky… as it was after Lena Horne’s last appearance in a picture or on a soundtrack.” Not simply loss; not merely isolation (which comes from Latin for “island”); desolation. On the date we look back and lose, we are desolate.