Most of us know mosaic as referring to art made of little bits – small tiles, for instance, or squares of wood, or little broken bits of pottery. If broad brush strokes are legato, mosaics are staccato.

Some of us, however, also know Mosaic as in Mosaic law: the law of Moses.

I have to say, the first time I saw that, I had a picture of the law being put together from little bits. (I still do, actually.) There may be something to that, but I leave the exegetics and scriptural history to other times, places, and authors.

So now is the part where you expect me to say that these two words, identical but for the capital letter, are really the same word, one capitalized and the other not. Like attic and Attic.

And now is the part where you are disappointed in that. No, they are not the same word. They are like two little squares, perhaps both in ultramarine hue, but one of them made of lapis lazuli and the other of porcelain pained with International Klein Blue.

Our language is something like a mosaic. The words are like little shards, all put together to make images, such as this article. Sometimes you will have two tiles of different colour but broken from the same piece of stone or ceramic. Sometimes you will have two similar tiles broken from the same piece. Sometimes you will have two identical tiles from very different sources.

And our language can seem Mosaic too: governed by a set of laws that may as well have been handed down by the Almighty on a high mountain, not just ten neat commandments on two tablets but hundreds more as well that you probably don’t even know about, some commonsense enough and some of them seemingly designed just to keep you from enjoying things that other people enjoy.

So where do mosaic and Mosaic come from?

The capital version comes from Moses, of course. Where does Moses come from? The man who led the Israelites out of Egypt had an apparently Egyptian name – the same root as you will see at the end of pharaonic names such as Thutmose and Ramesses. The m-s root means ‘son’. Well, he was raised in the Egyptian royal household, after all, adopted by the pharaoh’s daughter. An adopted son of Egypt and true son of Israel, with a truly Egyptian name adopted by the Israelite.

And the lower-case mosaic? It’s not entirely clear; the history is too fragmented. But it appears to come from the same root as museum and music, which is assumed to relate to the muses. Perhaps because shrines to the muses were decorated with mosaic tiles. Art, arts, notes. Staccato bits of ceramic or precious stone. Things that inspire us: the fragments that we put together. Or that come together by coincidence. Governed not by law so much as by resemblance and happenstance.

That’s what our language is like, really. Not immutable laws handed down by divine providence so that we can say who’s in the group and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s wrongeous. More broken bits of diverse provenance that we manage to put together into pleasing patterns.

6 responses to “mosaic

  1. By coincidence, Cambridge Scholars Publishing has recently published “Moses: The Righteous Sky Gazer” by Prof. Shlomo Giora Shoham. A description of this book, its table of contents, and excerpts can be seen at

    Prof. Shoham, who reads hieroglyphics, provides this derivation of the Egyptian name Moses on the very first page of his book:

    >> When I was born, my father, King Amenhotep IV who later changed his name to Akhenaten, gave me the name Mose, a common Egyptian name which means “a man is there.” Quite soon, however, my name was changed to Me-Shu. Me was given to me by my father’s Viceroy who was a Habiru, the chief of a Semitic tribe. … His ancestors came from Ur Kasdim (Ur of the Chaldees) and Harran in Mesopotamia. Therefore, he gave me the name Me – which means ‘law’ in Mesopotamian mythology. From a very early age I was fascinated by the sun, moon and stars in the heavens. I wandered around with my head lifted up to the skies. Therefore, my mother, Tiye, named me Shu, “sky” in Egyptian. Tiye was also my grandmother since my father sired me with his own mother. <<

    This book is much more than a biography. It describes the evolution of the Jewish concept of God from the "beginning" until the death of Moses. And it is written entirely in the first person, as if written by Moses himself, including his (imagined) conversations and correspondence with other characters in the book. The book needed a Glossary, so I compiled one myself. You can see it in the public folder of my Dropbox at

    Israel A Cohen
    Petah Tikva, Israel

  2. Even more than your gloss on “mosaic” — for which I thank you as always — thanks for “wrongeous”! It captures the world so well.

    Deplore cast stones? Sinner, avoid the righteous;
    Likely they are spoiling for a fight. Just
    Follow Jesus’ counsel: in a throng, us
    Common folk are safer with the wrongeous.

  3. Pingback: “Avoid the righteous” | Bag of Anything

  4. Pingback: righteous, wrongeous | Sesquiotica

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