Monthly Archives: February 2020


A plummet, as you may know, is a little bit of lead (hence the name: from plumb, from Latin plumbum ‘lead’, plus diminutive –et) used to weight a line for sounding depths or determining vertical. It is also a word for a stick of lead for writing with. We have had the noun since the 1300s. The verb plummet first (in the early 1600s) meant to use a plummet to sound the depth of water; more recently (from the mid-1800s) it has meant to fall precipitously – like a plummet being dropped, I guess. It has nothing to do with plums… except when they fall from the tree, of course.

Here is a poem. I hope it goes down well.

If you would lead, then bring your lead
and take your soundings from it—
you need not heed what’s in your head;
just stop and drop your plummet.

If to the object you object,
don’t seek to overcome it;
your sense is suspect, I suspect—
don’t guess the depth, just plumb it.

When you have read what you must read
from bow or bridge or summit,
then learn what’s plead and once more plead,
and look before you plummet.



Salvia officinalis: kitchen sage. One of many kinds of sage (many kinds). A plant of purple whorl flowers and soft, textured, furry, spear-shaped leaves. An herb to help make you healthy and wise (wealthy is at your discretion). The ancients noted it for its many and varied medicinal effects and so named it from salvus, ‘whole, healthy’.

Sage has many seasons. It can be soft, plush, and green, or hard, dry, and brown – and, if dry, it may be whole leaf, rubbed, shredded, or powdered. Use it to season meat or take it for medicine: healthy for the stomach, the joints, the skin, the heart, the mind.

Take a leaf of fresh sage, a soft, caressing pointlet of dense green, ready to be petted. Set it on your tongue like the light touch of a glove. Allow yourself to chew it. Instantly you are in a spa in the evergreen countryside for a weekend of massage and seclusion. There is mint and scents of the mountain, then camphor and eucalyptus, thujone (the bitterness of wormwood and absinthe), tannins, lavender, juniper, and others you will never name. And, at the end, an aftertaste of white vermouth. Relax. Have another martini and, one the wiser, lie face down and become a rubbed sage.

Take a taste of dry sage, the dust or the little twigs and mummified leaves, and you will know it right away: it is the characteristic savour of turkey stuffing, needing only onions, bread, butter, and some pepper and salt.

The flavour of sage is not dominating, and yet it is not dominated.

the sage is sharp but not cutting,
Pointed but not piercing,
Straightforward but not unrestrained,
Brilliant but not blinding.

The sage does not act, and so is not defeated.
Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

Does this seem fair, equating sage with the sage? The identity of form is deceptive: sage meaning ‘wise’ traces back to Latin sapere ‘know, be wise’; sage the plant traces to salvia, as we have seen. The transformation came in France: in the Savoie, Saintonge, and the centre of France, salvia – classically said like “sal wee a” and later “sal vee a” – seems to have softened the “lw” or “lv” to “w” and hardened the “ee” to “y” to “zh,” for the word became sauge, with that softest of “soft” g’s. Borrowed into English as sawge, it saw the aw become “aa” and then, over time and with the shifting of the vowels and the firming of the consonant, we gained our modern sage. In many other languages it has stayed variously closer to its origins: German Salbei, Hungarian zsálya, Polish szałwia, Portuguese sálvia, Italian salvia. Like the herb, the word has many seasons.

Some things are not favored by heaven. Who knows why?
Even the sage is unsure of this.
Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

And as the word rode into the purple and moved from health to wisdom, the herb it named shifted not to the sapient but to the sapid: it became more chiefly an ingredient in cookery to season many things. In truth, there has always been an overlap; it has long been used in cooking and is still used for medicine. But the emphasis has definitively slid from one to the other.

Sage has yet other seasons as well. It is, for instance, a name for a person. There are a few Sages of note, but the one that I picture is Sage Szkabarnicki-Stuart, a young and remarkable photographer who has a wise taste for the many and varied flavours of modern life; see her work at (See all of it. Be aware that what you see is what there was: she stood in that cold pond with those swans for hours each day over several days; those are real raccoons biting real bread she is really wearing. Let that be food for thought.)

But whether for Weltschmerz or any other Schmerz, we can still use this soft herb to assuage our ailments. If you are unwell in almost any way, there is evidence that sage can help. Pharmacological findings for Salvia officinalis include (per Ghorbani A, Esmaeilizadeh M, Pharmacological properties of Salvia officinalis and its components, J Tradit Complement Med 2017 Oct; 7(4): 433–440) “anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antinociceptive [that means it makes you feel less pain], antioxidant, antimicrobial, antimutagenic, antidementia, hypoglycemic [thus good for diabetics], and hypolipidemic [good for your cholesterol levels] effects.” Mind you remember that it has also been found to improve memory, mood, attention, and cognitive performance. “Cur moriatur homo cui salvia crescit in horto?” said the mediaevals (“Why die when sage grows in your garden?”).

And at the same time, sage helps animals that are already dead, or anyway it helps us to enjoy eating them. Here is a recipe for “Salsa bona a carne de castron o de capreto” (“Good sauce for goat or kid meat”) from a Venetian cookbook of the 1300s or 1400s:

La meiore salsa che fare se pò a questa carne alesse o rosto. Toy de la carne magra ben cocta e ben batuta e pesta in lo mortaro cum arquante cime de petrosemolo e menta e salvia e rosmarino e altre bone herbe che tu poi avere e maxenale con questa carne e mitige cenamo e garofali e pever e distempera questa salsa con el piú fino aceto che tu ay.

Allow me to make my best effort at rendering that:

The best sauce that you can make for this meat boiled or roasted. Take the lean meat well cooked and well ground in a mortar with enough leaves of parsley and mint and sage and rosemary and other good herbs that you may have and mix them with this meat and put in cinnamon and cloves and pepper and temper this sauce with the finest vinegar that you have.

(“And other good herbs that you may have.” How many teaspoons of that, please?) Here is a brunch recipe called “salviate” from the 1520 Catalan cookbook Libre del Coch, by Ruperto de Nola, translated by Lady Brighid ni Chiarain(I do not have the original):

Take some sage leaves, and grind them quite vigorously; and take a good quantity of eggs, and beat them and mix them with the sage; and then take a frying pan, and cast in lard in such a manner that after melting there is a finger’s breadth or more in the frying pan; and if there is no lard, take common oil which is sweet and very good, the same quantity; and when the lard or oil boils, cast in the eggs with the sage, and make of them an omelet which is well-cooked; and this omelet should be two fingers thick, or more.  And when it is well-cooked or fried, cast it on a good plate with much sugar above and below; and this omelet should be eaten hot.

And here is a recipe for “Sawgeat,” from The Forme of Curie:

Take Pork and seeþ it wel and grinde it smale and medle it wiþ ayren & brede. ygrated. do þerto powdour fort and safroun with pyner & salt. take & close litull Balles in foiles of sawge. wete it with a batour of ayren & fry it. & serue it forth.

Which is to say,

Take pork and boil it well and grind it small and meddle it with eggs and bread, grated. Add strong powder [a mixture of ginger, pepper, and other sharp spices] and saffron with pyner [pine nuts? it seems uncertain] and salt. Take and close little balls in leaves of sage. Wet it with a batter of eggs and fry it. And serve it forth.

(Unless your sage has larger leaves than my sage, those Balles will be litull indeede.)

Sage has its seasons and its seasonings; it has cared for us, and we for it. I care to have it more often, and more often fresh: I shall turn over a new leaf, and eat it.

The sage does not attempt anything very big,
And thus achieves greatness.
Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English


This is a word that can really throw you.

I don’t just mean its object, that butch tree, that brute tech, that better-than-catapult that can hurl large stones, small cars, and any old piano or organ through the countryside:

That machine certainly illustrates the value of a good pitcher’s arm, in a warped way. (I may mean warp in the old sense of ‘throw’ – that’s what the Old English word weorpan meant, a sense preserved in weaving; it gained our current sense apparently thought reference to the twisting one may do when throwing, as a pitcher does, not that they had baseball back then. On the other hand, speaking of pitchers and pots, throw – in its Old English version, þrāwan – originally meant ‘twist’ or ‘turn’, a sense preserved in pottery; its sense went deasil where warp went widdershins.) But there is a thing about letting trebuchet loose from your tongue that may throw you off.

Let us trace its trajectory to its current landing. English has had the word since the 1200s; we got it from Old French, which spelled it the same as we do. Old French put it together from two parts: the tre is from Latin trans, while the buchet is a derived from Old French buc meaning the trunk of the body; that word in turn came from an old Germanic root that has come down to modern German Bauch ‘belly’. Put the loose Latin with the hard German and you get something meaning ‘topple’.

And since we got it from French, we say it like French, right? Not so fast. We got it from Old French, in which trebuchet was said with the last syllable identical to how we say Chet as in Chet Baker. And since that works equally well in English, that’s how it got enshrined in our language.

But we went a long time without using these things in war, having discovered other less amusing but more destructive machines (with better range, too). So in modern times, when we encounter one (typically built for amusement), and encounter its name, we see a French word – it really does look French, doesn’t it? – and say it like a French word. Specifically, like an English-accented rendition of trébuchet, which is the modern French descendent of trebuchet, meaning the same thing and said as you would expect.

Now, there are various –et words we got from French that we might think we should say to rhyme with “bay” but actually rhyme with “bet”: Moët, for instance (as in the champagne), which is an old French name that has always had the t pronounced in French; or claret, which was taken long ago from French clairet but is thoroughly anglicized in form, sense, and sound. Trebuchet may seem more like the latter but is actually more like the former (fitting, since a Moët can throw a cork a long distance, whereas a claret cannot). But there is a difference: Moët is still said with the in French. We have, in general, decided to keep up with modern times, pull trebuchet out of the garage and pay homage to the modern Gauls, and say it to rhyme with “bay.”

“We” does not quite include some dictionaries, though. Which is why, as this little detail has been discovered, a movement is afoot to get Merriam-Webster to add the most popular current pronunciation to its entry.

And where do I stand on this?

I think that I shall never say
A word more swash than trebuchet
(Unless I say it “trebuchet”
[Please be aware I haven’t yet])

But is it art?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

Is writing art?

And if it is, what is editing?

If we say writing is “artful,” or “artistic,” or “an art,” we mean that we appreciate it aesthetically and admire it for the skill it evinces. But if we say not “writing is an art” but “writing is art” – or “this text is a work of art” – we connect it to an identity that is simultaneously nebulous and overloaded.

Everything has an aesthetic aspect. Though we don’t always focus on it, we do care how our car, toaster, toothbrush, and computer look. But in our culture we have decided, thanks to romanticist and classist ideas, that whatever art is or isn’t (and we argue about it a lot), an artwork must be aesthetic nobility, not working-class. If something serves an ordinary function, many people won’t accept it as art, whatever its aesthetic qualities may be. A bit over a century ago, Marcel Duchamp made the point by displaying items such as a bottle rack and a urinal in a gallery, and – in some eyes – Cinderellaed them into artworks by changing them from implements to conversation pieces.

Our romanticist ideas also construct the artist as a lone genius, producing a work of art through individual inspiration and effort: the painter paints alone; the sculptor chisels alone until the statue has been revealed from the marble; the solitary writer types out a work of perfect genius. This is actually a load of hooey – artists have always had workshops and assistants and patrons with opinions, and have typically made preparatory sketches and multiple versions… and of course writers are edited. But the ideals exist, and they push against any editorial role: if a book is a work of art, then it is not up to anyone but the author to shape it!

Most writing, of course, is overtly functional. But, like everything else, all writing has aesthetic effects. The choice of words and phrasing sets a tone. For some purposes (a parking ticket, perhaps) it can’t be too pretty or people won’t take it seriously; for others (a fancy invitation?), if it’s not pretty it’s disappointing.

Authors ought to be well-attuned to the aesthetically influential aspects of their words – smoothness, roughness, crispness, relative rarity (preciousness!), associations with certain contexts, resonances of other words. Some are better at it than others, but even those who are good at it can benefit from an audience who can assess how well they’re achieving their desired effects. And that is an important part of an editor’s function.

All writing is communication, and communication is always for effect: you want the readers to feel the right way about what you’re saying. The right editor can help the author achieve the right structure and aesthetic effect, whether in a novel or an annual report. Even something no one reads for pleasure can be a pleasure to read, and often it requires only small adjustments to sharpen the sound, rhythm, flow, and imageries. I’m not suggesting we replace “PARKING TICKET” with “VEHICULAR MISLOCATION MULCT CITATION,” but we can sometimes nudge “It is desirable that all document aspect functions exceed expectations” towards, say, “We would like all aspects of the text to work splendidly.”

We are not here to make art, whatever that may be. But we are here to help writing be as appropriately artful as possible.


Petroselinum crispum, an herb both savoury and ornamental, in some cuisines seen fit to be a principal ingredient, as in tabbouleh; in some to be a key seasoning, as in its role as a component of a bouquet garni and as one of the four axiomatic herbs of English folk-song; and in some to be a garnish appended to a plate of steak and tomato and returned to the kitchen most often uneaten, therefrom perhaps to be recirculated.

Petroselinum has nothing to do with selenium but one thing to do with petroleum: the rocks of the Greeks. Its etymon is πετροσέλινον, petroselinon, from πέτρα, petra, ‘rock’ (whence petroleum, ‘rock oil’, and Peter and petrichor and so on), plus σέλινον, selinon, ‘celery’. To the ancient Greeks, parsley was just another kind of celery, and if you had to be specific, it was the kind that grew on rocks. (The taxonomic Latin name appends crispum, which means not ‘crispy’ but ‘curly’, and I would like to think that I do not need to explain why.)

But petroselinum is a mouth-full, and one seldom wants a whole mouth-full of this plant; although it is, we are informed, packed with vitamin C, when fresh it has a flavour best characterized as aggressive – not just green and pert but, with the volume up, argumentative; when it is dry (as it can be bought in large jars), though its flavour is tamed (meaning murdered), it is… dry. Who wants a mouth-full of dry parsley flakes. My goodness.

So even the later Latin speakers, finding petroselinum articulatorily impertinent, wore it down a bit to petresilium (which Oxford calls “an unexplained alteration” of the original, but you see I have just explained it, and if you try to say petroselinum with your mouth full you, too, may well get to petresilium). The French, whose great linguistic tradition has been to cook Latin down to where it may be easily had with a glass of wine, soon enough made that persil. Meanwhile, the German tongues made Petersilie (which is not to be confused with silly Peter), which transferred unaltered to English until we formed a greater taste for the French. Medieval English cookery-books often called it persil or persel – and they called it often, as it was an herb most regularly used. Here you see it in a recipe from The Forme of Curie for pygges in sawse sawge, which is to say pigs in sage sauce:

Take Pigges yskaldid and quarter hem and seeþ hem in water and salt, take hem and lat hem kele. take persel sawge. and grynde it with brede and zolkes of ayrenn harde ysode. temper it up with vyneger sum what thyk. and, lay the Pygges in a vessell. and the sewe onoward and serue it forth.

Here, allow me:

Take scalded pigs and quarter them and boil them in water and salt, take them and let them cool. Take parsley and sage and grind it with bread and hard-boiled egg yolks. Temper it up with vinegar somewhat thick, and lay the pigs in a vessel, and then so on and serve it forth.

(I would like to write a cookbook in which I could put “and then so on.”)

Older English cookery has no recipes centring on parsley, as a little goeth a long way. But Henry VIII was known to like parsley sauce, which was – and is – a simple white sauce flavoured with parsley. If, however, you head the other way from Greece and cross over the Mediterranean to the Levant, you will find tabbouleh (or any of several other spellings of تبولة‎ tabūla), in which the star ingredient is parsley – which in Arabic is called مَقْدُونِس‎‎‎ maqdūnis, meaning ‘Macedonian’ (from an original form calling it Macedonian coriander).

Parsley can also be seen dancing on top of many a dish throughout Europe, where, as everywhere, it packs a pretty punch. In Russia it is called петрушка, petrushka, and in Poland pietruszka, which are homonyms for the puppet character we know as Petrushka, who is sometimes presented as a sad doll but is really the Slavic version of Punch (as in and Judy). The homonymy is a coincidence, we are assured; it is just because of that Greek Peter connection. In Hungary, our plant is petrezselyem and is often the only green thing in sight as it floats in your paprikás; in Sweden, persilja may flavour the potatoes on your smörgåsbord. You can also have your prezzemolo in copious amounts in Italy as part of salsa verd eand gremolata, and if you come over to Brazil you will get your fill of perrexil in cheiro-verde. And in France, you cannot season a good sauce without a bouquet-garni, and you cannot make a decent bouquet-garni without parsley.

In the United States and Canada, however, for a long time, parsley was hidden in sauces or presented on plates as a garnish. Although those who prefer to cook with it generally prefer the flat-leaf kind, the curly kind is especially popular for ornament, and I can say, as someone who has always eaten the parsley that comes on my plate (even as a child treated to what passed for decent dining in 1970s Alberta), that the flavour may take your tongue to the mat, but the spiky little curls will nail it down.

I must be fair: the American orbit is not the only place parsley is seen as prettification. Although (as noted) Italian cuisine makes good use of the flavour of prezzemolo, there is a diminutive form, prezzemolina, that is sometimes used to refer to pretty women serving ornamental functions (as on some television shows). I do not endorse this, naturally, but it is apposite in that parsley is much stronger and has much better taste than many of the things it is used to ornament, and those who refuse to take it seriously are probably going to live an unnecessarily insipid life and drop dead all the sooner from their insalubrious habits.


Some lovely day, seven hundred and thirty or more years ago, sweet and heart came together.

Both were words that had been in English since before English was English, with roots far, far back, and cousins from India to Iceland.

Sweet, a word everyone loves, had grown from a Proto-Indo-European root that also became Latin suavis ‘sweet, delicious’, now bequeathed to us as suave, and Greek ἡδύς (hédus) ‘pleasant’, now at our masquerade ball as part of hedonistic, along with a swath of other words meaning ‘sweet’: स्वादु (svādú), soave, süß, zoet, søt, sætur

Heart, which beats blood but also pumps emotions, had a similar history at the heart of languages strung between Kangchenjunga and Snæfellsjökull, from हृद् (hṛ́d) through καρδία (kardia, whence cardiac) and Latin cor (whence courage) and cœur and serce (whence serduszka as in “Dwa Serduszka Cztery Oczy”) and Herz (even if your heart beats at less than 1 hertz, it is still dein ganzes Herz) and hart and hjarta

As when two famous and glamorous people are in the same restaurant at the same time, it was inevitable that these two would soon enough spot each other and come together. And by 1290 they had, as swete heorte, which is how they looked when they were young and wild and free. For Chaucer, the happy couple were swete herte; for Shakespeare, sweet-heart. And for Dashiell Hammett, sweetheart.

Like any famous couple, they show up in many places, even where you don’t expect them. You can buy small sugar hearts called Sweethearts, each bearing a message (like a confectionary fortune cookie); you can make a sweetheart deal if you’re negotiating a contract. They also have their imitators, such as the band Streetheart. And of course “sweetness heart”:

But you want your true sweetheart, especially at Valentine’s (which, as a celebration of romance, is newer than this word, sweetheart). And you will want your sweetheart to let you call them sweetheart:

That was a hit in 1911, and it kept coming back…

Sweet and heart, together once and forever in English, though their cousins in other languages have never paired off in parallel.

Not all sweethearts are forever, though we can hope. But all sweethearts are like sugar in the spirit, a treat to enjoy, even if just for one day, as Charlotte Mew wrote a century ago:

Fin de Fête
by Charlotte Mew

Sweetheart, for such a day
One mustn’t grudge the score;
Here, then, it’s all to pay,
It’s Good-night at the door.

Good-night and good dreams to you,—
Do you remember the picture-book thieves
Who left two children sleeping in a wood the long night through,
And how the birds came down and covered them with leaves?

So you and I should have slept,—But now,
Oh, what a lonely head!
With just the shadow of a waving bough
In the moonlight over your bed.

Biography of a word gardener: Elias Lönnrot

This is Elias Lönnrot. Without him, the culture of Finland wouldn’t be what it is today.

He didn’t create Finnish culture, of course. But he did help it grow into its present form. Sort of like a gardener working with plants. Or an arborist working with a tree.

A culture – and its language, which is the vital fluid of culture – is like, say, a maple tree. The leaves arrive, change colours, go away, come back; the branches grow, bend, fork. It all comes from the roots, which you mostly don’t see but which are essential. But humans can also shape the tree. They can water it, they can prune it, they can bend it. They can even graft onto its roots.

The Finnish language is like a very well tended tree. I’ve been struck for years by how regular and careful its system of sounds and grammatical bits is. The kind of Finnish you see on the page and hear on TV may seem complex to us, but to a comparative linguist’s eyes it bears clear marks of conscious efforts to standardize and regularize it. For example, it has a very consistent vowel harmony: the “back” vowels a, o, and all have “front” equivalents ä, ö, and y, and in any given word (or part of a compound word) you don’t mix back and front vowels (and go with either). Suffixes will even change to match: compare –ainen versus –äinen in the names Kovalainen and Vyyryläinen. It’s very tidy.

Gardeners have been here.

The first gardener of note was a minister named Mikael Agricola, the son of a farmer. He lived in the 1500s, at which time Finland had been under the control of Sweden for about 400 years. The Finnish language didn’t have the same prestige as Swedish, but it was spoken by a lot of people. Agricola put it in a written form and translated the Bible and a number of other things into it.

Agricola’s Finnish is not the Finnish used now. For one thing, his spelling was inconsistent and not always good at distinguishing between similar words. For another, the Finnish language has changed so much in the intervening centuries that the kind of Finnish he wrote down is now called Old Finnish. A person who speaks modern Finnish wouldn’t be able to just pick up one of his books and read it.

Fast-forward a bit. In 1808, Finland was still part of Sweden. In 1810, Finland was part of Russia. Russia invaded and took it over in 1809 and made it an autonomous Grand Duchy. But Swedish culture was still influential, and the Finnish language was, more than ever, a language of the “common people” – which tended to mean poor and rural people, with various regional dialects.

But there were people who wanted Finland to have a national identity. And to have your own identity, it helps to have – and use – your own language. You’ll also want some important cultural material of your own. Iceland has its sagas. England has its Arthurian legends and a whole bunch of other stuff. And Finland had lots of folk songs and stories, too… if you went out to the towns around the country and heard them.

Into this, in 1802, was born Elias Lönnrot.

“Outwardly Lönnrot’s life was fairly uneventful and simple,” wrote his successor August Ahlqvist in a biography after Lönnrot’s death (see the National Biography of Finland): “born in a poor home, is put into secondary school, suffers hardship but makes progress in his studies, gets into university, earns his livelihood as a domestic tutor, passes his examinations satisfactorily, though not with distinction, acquires a post and fulfils his duties irreproachably. That is about all. Lönnrot’s arid existence lacked surprising events, daring exploits and emotional turmoils.”

Ahlqvist may have been understating the case a bit.

Lönnrot studied medicine at the Imperial Academy in Turku. While he was a student there, a little event commonly referred to as the Great Fire of Turku happened. Three-quarters of the city burned to the ground, including the main building of the Royal Academy.

Lönnrot took a short enforced break from his studies. He went on a trip to Karelia, an eastern area that’s now mostly in Russian territory, and got to know some of the roots of Finnish culture. He studied the customs and listened to their songs and made lots of notes. Meanwhile, the Imperial Academy set up in a new location in Helsinki, and so Lönnrot went back and finished his studies.

He got lucky right out of university: there was a famine in a rural district and the doctor there up and quit, so Lönnrot got the job as the only physician for 4000 people spread out in many small villages. His home base was Kajaani, a village almost 600 kilometres north of Helsinki. He travelled a lot. Over the course of his life, he travelled a distance that has been calculated as equal to a trip from Helsinki to the South Pole, although he got no farther south or west than Estonia, no farther east than Arkhangelsk, and no farther north than… well, where the land stops at the northern tip of the Scandinavian peninsula. And he did much of it on foot.

Elias Lönnrot was a good, thoughtful, open-minded, and innovative doctor; he implemented community health centres and undertook health education and awareness programs. He wrote a very popular book, the 1839 Suomalaisen Talonpojan Koti-Lääkäri (The Finnish Peasant’s Home Doctor). He was an advocate for temperance – he founded a group called the Selveys-Seura (Clearheads Club). It folded because of a lack of members. He also studied and made use of medicinal herbs.

Plants were one of his great loves, in fact – leaves as well as roots. He wrote Flora Fennica (1860), the first book on Finnish flowers. He gave names that are still in use to many of the local plants. He also had other great loves that were aided by his many rural peregrinations: songs, stories, culture, and the Finnish language.

On his first trip, during university, Lönnrot became acquainted with some songs, folk tales, and singers. Throughout his life, he kept taking trips and getting to know culture and its purveyors. As a doctor travelling around rural Finland checking vaccinations, he also got to hear many more songs and get to know more notable singers. And he had the idea of collecting these poems into a coherent collection with a clear narrative through-line.

Putting together a national lore or mythos is not easy. Any student of the classics of Greek and Rome knows that there are many unresolvable forks and conflicting stories involving various versions of the many characters. Heck, even the Christian Bible has four overlapping but not exactly identical accounts of the life of its central character. If you want a coherent mythos, you can do one of four things: you and everyone in your culture can get together every year and sing the whole thing through to make sure you’re consistent, which is what they used to do in Iceland; you can tell your own version of the stories in a coherent way and have it become the dominant version, as Homer did for the stories relating to the Trojan War and its aftermath; you can just plain old make it up out of whole cloth, like J.R.R. Tolkien writing his Middle Earth mythology (much harder to do with a real culture and country, though); or you can collect it and trim it and shape it and graft bits onto other bits to make it all work together, and maybe do some writing yourself. Maybe do a fair bit of writing, in fact, to fill the gaps and make it smooth.

Elias Lönnrot took the fourth path.

Finns, wanting to assert their own distinct culture, eagerly received the publication in 1835 of Lönnrot’s collection of mythic poetry, titled the Kalevala. It was catalyzing, galvanizing, and whatever other -izing word you want. Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius, used it as material and inspiration for some of his most famous work. It also, a century later, inspired an Englishman named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to write his own mythos.

Tolkien was inspired not only by the concept but also by the language. His classical Elvish language, Quenya, drew on Finnish. (The Elvish language that everyone thinks of when thinking of Lord of the Rings, however, is Sindarin, which drew on Welsh.)

That language. As Lönnrot collected the songs of the Kalevala and put together his next work, the Kanteletar – a collection of hymns and other songs for a dulcimer-like instrument called the kantele – and as he assembled a larger revised version of the Kalevala that was released in 1849 (my English paperback edition of it is two inches thick), and as he was writing his other works, Lönnrot needed a consistent language with a consistent writing system and a replete vocabulary. Remember that Swedish was still dominant; all his university studies were in Swedish, for instance, though his home language had been Finnish. But Lönnrot’s books were written in Finnish, and not in Agricola’s Old Finnish.

Lönnrot wasn’t the only scholar working on a clear, consistent, standardized Finnish, to be sure. In 1820, professor Reinhold von Becker of the University of Turku had declared that Finnish should be reformed and standardized to adhere more to the dialects of the more inland and eastern parts of Finland, because they were “purer” and did not have all the marks of contact with other languages that the Finnish of the western port cities such as Turku and Helsinki had. Not everyone agreed with him. This disagreement, which has become known as the Battle of the Dialects (I’m not even kidding), raged for three decades. It ended in a sort of compromise; the western literary foundation built on Agricola’s work remained, but a lot of eastern grammatical features and vocabulary were integrated. (And, of course, people still spoke their regional dialects, as many still do.)

Lönnrot was important in reaching that compromise. He had become a hero of Finnish folk culture, after all, and in his many travels he had heard the various dialects of Finnish, collected much of its poetry, lore, and vocabulary, and needed to put it all in a form that was coherent and consistent.

So of course he was made Chair of Finnish Literature at the University of Helsinki in 1853.

And then, of course, he put together a dictionary. Having been not just the gardener but the landscape architect of the national lore of Finland, he set to being the herbologist of its lexicon. It helped that in 1863 the Tsar (remember, Russia still “owned” Finland) declared Finnish an official language equal in status to Swedish – but Lönnrot’s efforts had plenty to do with its having gained that status. (The efforts of many in the Finnish upper classes to learn Finnish and use it in their homes – even changing their names to Finnish versions – also had plenty to do with it. Remember, Finland wanted to assert itself as culturally distinct from Sweden!) Between 1866 and 1880, Lönnrot assembled the Suomalais-Ruotsalainen Sanakirja (Finnish–Swedish Dictionary). Two hundred thousand words, including some new ones for new things formed on the basis of old Finnish words rather than just borrowing from other languages. (This wasn’t just because of nationalism; many words that might have been borrowed did not fit comfortably into Finnish phonology, which does not accept a lot of the consonant clusters so common in other European languages.)

Between all this travelling and writing and so on, Lönnrot, long a famously eligible bachelor, eventually managed to make time to get married – in 1849, shortly after his revised Kalevala was released. He had a son and four daughters, but the son died in infancy, three of his daughters died in young adulthood of infections (tuberculosis and diphtheria), and his wife died in her forties, in 1868, of tuberculosis.

The gardener plants and shapes, but the plants grow. Finnish evolved in significant ways in Lönnrot’s lifetime, adding new vocabularies and shifting preferred forms. And many Finns spoke Swedish at home – including Lönnrot’s wife and daughters. Much academic discussion was still done in Swedish, which had the technical and abstract vocabulary that Finnish was still striving to add. Later in his life, Lönnrot used Finnish less and less, saying that it had developed forms that were beyond his grasp. You can plant a tree and finally not be able to reach its top leaves, though you stand on its roots.

Finland still has Swedish influence, though only a small percentage of Finns speak Swedish as their first language now. But consider: The most famous national composer, Jean Sibelius, has a Swedish family name (well, Swedish morphologically, formed on a place in eastern Finland; also, the French-styled Jeanwas his own choice – he was born Johan). Finland’s leading linguistic lights include Mikael Agricola (that’s Latin for ‘farmer’), Reinhold von Becker (a German name), and Lönnrot’s colleague and cousin-in-law Johan Vilhelm Snellman (also a Swedish name).

And the man who gardened Finland’s national epic, its national wordbook, and other important parts of its culture? Elias Lönnrot’s family name might look Finnish if you don’t know any Finnish or Swedish, but it is in fact a straightforward Swedish compound word formed, like many Swedish names (such as Hasselblad, which means ‘hazel leaf’, and Lindgren, which means ‘linden branch’), from botanical clippings: Lönn means ‘maple’ and rot means ‘root’.

(The Finnish translation of his name, if you want to know, would be Vaahterajuuri.)

Some sources:

“Elias Lönnrot.” Wikipedia.

“Finland’s language strife.” Wikipedia.

Lehtinen, Tapani, and Auli Hakulinen. “Finnish.” Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 90, no. 3 (2012): 1029–1052.

National Biography of Finland. “Lönnrot, Elias (1802–1884).”