Earth. The soil, the ground, the surface, the orb of the planet, the world, the full expanse of our being, the people and places of it. All the worth, all the mirth, all that has a birth or a berth, every heart and every hearth, every dear and every dearth and every death, and every tongue and hand and eye and ear: earthlings all, all on the earth, of the earth. Compassed in this short word for the soil that holds us together, five letters but (for most speakers) only two sounds: a sustaining liquid /ɹ/ and a soft dusty fricative /θ/.
Liquid and dust. Water and soil. This is the surface of the earth. But it is also two of the four “elements”: earth, air, fire, water. A heuristic way of conceptualizing, but of course three of those things contain many elements and the other is a process that transforms. The earth, though, this sphere, is what gives us gravity, what holds us together; it keeps the water flowing over its surface, and the air clinging to it so that the fire may burn on it.
Earth: a handful of chaotic organic and inorganic molecules, intensely complex. And a word for the entirety of our realm of existence, save for the distant sun that powers it and the nearer moon that reflects on us and that we reflect on in turn. The earth is the counterpoise to the heavens; the earth is what we can touch. The heavens are simple and ideal and distant; the earth is complex and dirty and here. This earth is like the letters and sounds that make up our language, and the ideas that are played out in it.
And such an utterly English word. Not just the unnecessary spelling. The two sounds are both classic English sounds but generally uncommon in languages around the world. Alveolar approximant /ɹ/ is characteristic of few languages (Irish and Mandarin come to mind), and the syllabic version less common still; voiceless dental fricative /θ/ is so abnormal for speakers of many languages that they just can’t make themselves say it when speaking English, preferring /f/ or /s/ or /t/ instead – as do native speakers of some dialects of English.
It is as ancient an English word as may be found, there from the beginning. Related to Afrikaans aard as in aardvark (in the beginning was the word, and the word was aardvark) and to German Erde and Scandinavian jord. You will find old earth in the first sentence of Ælfric’s translation of the Bible into Old English:
On angynne gesceop God heofenan and eorðan. Seo eorðe soðlice wæs idel ond æmti, ond þeostra wæron ofer ðære nywelnysse bradnysse; ond Godes gast wæs geferod ofer wæteru.
It is eorðe, accusative eorðan. Those are, of course, the famous first sentences of Genesis, best known to Anglophones in the King James version:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
“The poetry of the earth is never dead,” John Keats wrote. Where there is trouble there is poetry, so what Ella Wheeler Wilcox says is true:
Laugh and the world laughs with you.
Weep, and you weep alone;
For this brave old earth must borrow its mirth
But has trouble enough of its own.
Laughter is fire: not a thing but a process that changes things – and helps keep the things warm. But the earth is stoic; ask Walt Whitman:
The earth does not withhold, it is generous enough;
The truths of the earth continually wait, they are not so conceal’d either;
They are calm, subtle, untransmissible by print;
They are imbued through all things, conveying themselves willingly,
Conveying a sentiment and invitation of the earth—I utter and utter,
I speak not, yet if you hear me not, of what avail am I to you?
To bear—to better—lacking these, of what avail am I?
The earth does not argue,
Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,
Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise,
Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures,
Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out,
Of all the powers, objects, states, it notifies, shuts none out.
It is the ground of our being. We are processes on it, like lightning made by moving clouds of water, evening out again at last with the earth, as it was in the beginning, earth without end.
Thanks to Laurie Miller for suggesting that I taste earth. As he is a rugby player, I suspect that he has tasted plenty of earth in his time.