Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Yesterday's Word-of-the-Day was, "Monadnock". It's come up before, and always makes me smile, since we go to New Hampshire every summer (except the last two years — don't even mention it to the kids!) and have scaled Mt. Monadnock. The view from the summit is rivaled by the sense of accomplishment at reaching it, especially on a sunny, midsummer's day. Margaret had woven many tales of clambering up "Mou-na-na-nock" as a child, and recalled the view of the mountain from Keene, NH, and how it had seemed to call to her from its lofty perch. My first ascent, we had a friend from Chicago staying at the lake with us, who fancied himself a photographer and wanted desperately to capture the view from the top of Margaret's fabled peak. At the trailhead, he asked an elderly couple coming down the mountain if there were more than the one trail to the top. "I think the Pocka Trail goes all the way up." Only later, after almost getting lost and consulting the map did we learn that our guides were visiting from Boston. "Clamber" was an accurate description of the first half of the ascent, regardless of the trail chosen. But it was worth standing atop the geological survey marker and looking for the Boston skyline in the haze.

I also enjoy seeing Monadnock as the Word-of-the-day, because its etymology has always bothered me. According to Wordsmith, Mount Monadnock is "a peak in New Hampshire, whose name in Algonquian means isolated mountain." What bothered me was that monad in English meant "a single, isolated unit" and knock in English meant "hill", so somehow the Algonquian and English languages had undergone some sort of crazy convergent evolution culminating in a single word, Monadnock, that meant the same thing in both languages. So today, I did some research and found, "Algonquian Names of Some Mountains and Hills" by William Wallace Tooker in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 17, No. 66 (Jul. - Sep., 1904), pp. 171-179 (available through JSTOR). Tooker says:

man, or mon, is a significant prefix to many word combinations... meaning "wonderful," "wonder," "vision," "revelation," "marvellous," etc. It is from the primary verbal root -an, "surpassing," "going beyond," "is more than the common," with the indefinite impersonal m prefix added, which with its generic -adn, "mountain," and the locative -ock, "place," gives as a synthesis of Man-adn-ock, "land or country of the surpassing mountain."

So, Monadnock is the land of the wondrous mountain, and Mt. Monadnock is the mountain of the land of the wondrous mountain; and the colonists who first heard the locals call the area Man-adn-ock probably felt the same sense of linguistic convergence as I did and assumed Monad-knock was Algonquian for isolated hill.
Next post: as a child I spent a week at the Grand Tetons...

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