The true story of ‘true’ – Gina Cooke


Everyone knows that stories are made up of words, from short poems to epic novels. But did you know that a single word itself can tell an entire story? You see, just as we can look at a story’s plot, setting, and characters, we can also study the history of an individual word, where it developed, and the cultures and people who helped shape it. Looking into the story of a word is like counting the rings of a tree. Newer words, like Google or cyborg, have shorter stories. But the older the word, the longer the story and the more it stands to reveal to us not only about itself, but about ourselves and our history. The oldest words in present-day English are those that come from Old English, the ancestor of our modern language whose first seeds were planted about 1500 years ago. Compared to languages like Greek or Chinese that date back thousands of years, English is just a sapling in the lexical forest. But the stories of its words often start long before English itself took root. One such word is the familiar word true, as in true stories. Let’s take a look. True usually means factual, correct, or faithful to reality. It can also mean exact, properly positioned, upright, or straight. A true friend is loyal, reliable, faithful, and steadfast. The word true is a simple word, and we can add some affixes to grow its family tree with words like truer, truest, truly, truth, and untruth. But if we go in the other direction to look at the roots of true itself, we find even more relatives further up the family tree. The words trust, bethroth, and truce all derive from the same source as true, and these words all denote faithfulness or confidence. A thousand years ago, the word true looked and sounded different than it does today. In several Old English dialects, the word treow was a noun that meant good faith or trust, a pledge or a promise. But it also had another definition, tree, and that’s no coincidence. If we trace the roots back even farther, we find that both meanings derive from a common origin, where some of the earliest expressions of the concept of truth were associated with the uprightness of an oak, the steadiness of a silver birch, and the fidelity of an orchard baring fruit year after year. This may sound like a stretch at first, but trees are the oldest living organisms on this planet. Some that would have been called treow long ago still stand today. The Fortingall Yew in Scotland is more than 2,000 years old. A Californian Bristlecone Pine is more than 5,000. And Utah’s Pando-quaking Aspen Grove has a single root system that dates back more than 80 millennia. Trees have also held a sacred place in many cultures throughout history. The Celtic peoples who first inhabited the British Isles believed that trees housed deities. And, in fact, the ancient Druids take their name from the same ancient root as tree. Planting a tree is itself an act of faith and commitment. Not only are trees upright and prototypically straight, but they are actual, solid, and real, something you can see and touch. And they are as reliable and steadfast to us today as they were a millennium ago, nurturing us, sheltering us, and providing the pages of our books. Philosophers and poets, people in search of the truth, have often sought it in trees. “What did the tree learn from the Earth to be able to talk with the sky?” asked Pablo Neruda. “A tree falls the way it leans,” says an old proverb. Just as trees mark our landscapes and witness our histories, the stories of words landscape our language, capturing the rains and sunshine of generations and sending roots and branches far and wide. As there is a whole orchard in a single seed, there is a whole story in a single word, and that’s the truth.

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