A common language

Bill Bryson

Of the many American brand names that have infiltrated the English language—kleenex, aspirin, q-tips, to name a few—none has enjoyed greater success than the word Kodak. Properly capitalized, Kodak originated as the trade name of an inexpensive camera invented by George Eastman of Rochester, New York. As Eastman’s revolutionary invention burgeoned in popularity, kodak became a common noun and a generic term for camera. Yet, for all its eventual currency, Kodak had the least auspicious of origins. The word was coined by Eastman and his mother in 1888 with the aid of an anagram set and three guiding principles. First, the word had to be short. Second, it had to be easily pronounced. And third, it should not resemble any other word or be associated with anything other than the Eastman family business. Kodak, in other words, was conjured out of thin air and meant precisely nothing.

That story is but one of the many explanatory anecdotes to be found in Bill Bryson’s Made in America (1994), an “informal history of the English language in the United States.” Engaging his subject with wit, erudition, and a keen eye for the ridiculous, Bryson offers a minor revelation on nearly every page. We learn, for example, that the word nitwit comes from the Dutch expression Ik niet wiet (“I don’t know”) and that the meaningless word Idaho was concocted by nineteenth-century congressmen, who thought that it sounded like a good Indian name. Vermont, by contrast, is a botched approximation of monts verts (“green mountains”), with the French word-order inexplicably reversed. Beyond these risible etymologies, however, Bryson’s comprehensive history illuminates some deeper truths about language in general and American English in particular. Through a profusion of colorful examples, Bryson reveals the strikingly recent origins, the often arbitrary nature, and, when all is said, the radical insubstantiality of words whose established pedigree and reliable solidity one tends to take for granted.

With respect to recent origins, it may surprise even connoisseurs of American culture to learn that Levi’s dates from the 1940s, supermarket from 1933, and restroom from 1900. Panties dates from 1845, but the word originally referred to men’s undershorts, being an abbreviation of pantaloons and a close relative of pants, a then-controversial Americanism first recorded in 1840. Panties did not refer to a female article until 1908. Vacation dates from 1879. Weekend was in use in the 1870s in England but not in America until the 1930s. Of particular interest is the word escalate, a verb employed today to describe the intensification of a conflict. Escalate is a back-formation of the noun Escalator, a trade name introduced by the Otis Elevator Company in 1900. Before then, escalators were known as moving stairs. As all of these instances illustrate, common words are seldom the fixed entities they appear to be. They more resemble colors in a stream, subject to forces social and commercial and to ever-changing causes and conditions.

Yet to ascribe the origins of words to shifting external conditions is to tell only part of the story. Often, those origins are purely arbitrary. That is particularly true of trade names and place names, which have sometimes been chosen after long deliberation but have just as often lacked any grounding in concrete reality. Betty Crocker came into being because an executive at the Washburn Crosby Company thought Betty sounded wholesome, and Crocker was the name of a fellow executive, recently deceased. A small town in Iowa is named after the Seminole chief Osceola, who never set foot in Iowa. And as Bryson points out, many a town on the American frontier was named by passengers on transcontinental railway lines, who were granted the privilege of naming stops along the way. Elsewhere, towns around the mining camps acquired their names from unofficial sources, resulting in such  appellations as Guano Hill, Dead Mule, and Puke, California.

Rivaling those American words whose origins were conditional or arbitrary, there are those whose derivations are wholly unknown. Why anyone would call a quarrel a rhubarb or the act of chasing fly balls shagging remains a mystery, even to baseball aficionados. Where the word gumption, an old-fashioned synonym for initiative, came from is anyone’s guess. And why a certain boxy, uncomfortable wartime vehicle should be known as a jeep has remained a conundrum for more than half a century. Various theories have been advanced, but none has been proven.

According to Zen teachings, what we conventionally view as static “things” are actually fluid processes. All are impermanent and dependent upon causes and conditions. By attaching names to purported “things,” we delude ourselves and live at a far remove from ultimate reality. But as Bryson’s book vividly illustrates, much of our everyday vocabulary also lacks a firm footing in the actual world. Our common language is also insubstantial. Beyond the bounds of American English or any other language lies the boundless, unnameable dimension of our lives, which may well be intuited but cannot be described by words alone.


Bill Bryson, Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (HarperCollins, 1994).





Magnanimous mind

If you enjoy cooking, as I do, and if you devote much time to that activity, you probably play favorites. You have your favorite recipes and your favorite ingredients. High in my own hierarchy would be certain meats (chicken,  pork tenderloin), fish (haddock, cod, sole), vegetables (yams, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli), and seasonings (turmeric, coriander, ginger, fenugreek). Much lower on the ladder would be salt, processed meats, and sugar (New York State maple syrup excepted). Beyond these personal preferences, there is the relative cost of any one ingredient. Fresh sea scallops at $19.99 / lb., it’s fair to say, receive greater respect than a common parsnip or humble clove of garlic.

Nothing unusual there, you might conclude, especially for an amateur chef aiming to create simple, frugal, and nutritious meals for his family and friends. But in a classic text of the Soto Zen tradition, Eihei Dogen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook (Tenzo Kyōkun; 1237), the founder of that tradition challenges the assumptions and the value system such conventional thinking represents. “When making a soup with ordinary greens,” Dogen advises, “do not be carried away by feelings of dislike towards them nor regard them lightly; neither jump for joy simply because you have been given ingredients of superior quality to make a special dish. . . . Do not be negligent and careless just because the materials seem plain . . . Your attitude toward things should not be contingent upon their quality.”

As might be surmised from the last of those admonitions, Dogen has more than cooking in mind. The Tenzo Kyōkun is in part a practical manual for the head cook, or tenzo, of a Japanese Zen monastery. But in its broader, metaphoric dimension, it is also a guide for living, in which a medieval Zen master advocates a general attitude toward the conduct of everyday life. That attitude has multiple aspects, but three in particular stand out.

To begin with, Dogen articulates a principle of radical equality. Just as the ingredients of a meal are to be treated with equal regard, whether they are common or rare, cheap or expensive, so are the other components of our experience, including the four seasons, our changing fortunes and mental states, and, not least, the people we encounter on our daily rounds. “Do not get carried away by the sounds of spring,” Dogen advises, “nor become heavy-hearted upon seeing the colors of fall. View the changes of the seasons as a whole, and weigh the relativeness of light and heavy from a broad perspective.” Likewise, when working with others, “do not judge monks as deserving of respect or as being worthless, nor pay attention to whether a person has been practicing for only a short time or for many years.”

Concordant with this principle of equality, Dogen also advocates an attitude of wholehearted attention, irrespective of the rank or status of its object. “When handling or selecting greens,” we should “do so wholeheartedly, with a pure mind . . . in the same way in which you would prepare a splendid feast.” Similarly, when encountering and interacting with other people, we should give them our undivided attention, regardless of their perceived virtue, means, stature, or seniority. All are “treasures of the sangha,” which is to say, valued members of the community of practitioners. All deserve our deep and undivided attention. Nor should we discriminate on the basis of conflicting or congruent opinions. Although someone “may have been mistaken in the past,” Dogen notes, “he may very well be correct in the context of things now.”

Underlying these attitudes of equality and full engagement is a fundamental principle of Zen practice, which Dogen calls Magnanimous Mind. One of a trio of “minds” recommended for the Zen cook (the other two being “Joyful” and “Parental”), Magnanimous Mind is “like a mountain, stable and impartial.” It is also like the ocean, insofar as it is “tolerant and views everything from the broadest perspective.” It is without prejudice and refuses to take sides. To cultivate the quality of Magnanimous Mind, one should “write, understand, and study the character for magnanimous.” Having understood the profound meaning of that character (daishin, or “Big Heart / Mind,” in Japanese), one should endeavor to apply that understanding, first to cooking and ultimately to every dimension of one’s life.

Not long ago, I discussed Dogen’s attitude toward cooking with a former sous-chef, who had worked in a high-end Boston restaurant. Such a philosophy, he remarked, would never fly in that fast-paced urban environment. Analogously, Dogen’s calls for equality, wholeheartedness, and magnanimity, timely and well-founded though they might be, run against the grain of competitive Western culture. But as a statement of values and intentions, Dogen Zenji’s “instructions” have much to recommend them. Put into practice, however imperfectly, they promise more than wholesome meals. They also chart a path toward wisdom and compassion, both in our personal lives and in the wider arena of human affairs.


Eihei Dogen, Instructions for the Zen Cook, translated by Thomas Wright, with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, in How to Cook Your Life (Shambhala, 2005), 7, 18, 14, 13, 18. I am indebted to Uchiyama Roshi’s explication of this text.




206. True adulthood

Kwan Yin, Bodhisattva of compassion, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, San Francisco

Every era has its blind spots: subjects that go largely unexamined, though their presence can be felt and their importance intuited at every turn. In our own time, one conspicuous instance is the subject of maturity, which receives scant notice in the media, much less sustained attention. Even AARP The Magazine, which used to be called Modern Maturity, now avoids both the word and the concept it designates, focusing instead on ways of staying hip and feeling younger. Yet, in my experience, few qualities of mind and heart are more conducive to health and well-being than emotional, intellectual, and spiritual maturity. In its absence, individuals, families, and whole societies suffer. In its presence, harmonious relations between classes, races, political parties, and other competing interests become possible. Reason enough, one would have thought, to give the subject serious consideration. Continue Reading »

205. Good intentions

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, Rinzai Zen version

If you are a connoisseur of proverbial wisdom, you know which road is paved with good intentions. And if you’ve ever bestowed a well-intentioned gift, only to find it unwanted and unappreciated, you may be forgiven for suspecting that good intentions, especially those that ignore actual conditions and circumstances, may be as unavailing as last year’s New Year’s resolutions.

In the popular imagination, Zen is sometimes viewed as a philosophy of “going with the flow.” Rather than impose our narrow intentions on things as they are, we should relax and let events unfold of their own accord. Such a view is not without a basis in Zen teachings. No less an authority than Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, asserts that “the true purpose” of Zen is “to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.” But in the foundational teachings of the Buddhist tradition, of which Zen is a late flowering, the issue of intentionality plays a pivotal role. “The thought becomes an intention,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “the intention manifests as an action, the action develops into habit, and habit hardens into character. Therefore watch closely the thought and let it spring from concern for all beings.” Far from being extraneous or antithetical, intentions and their manifestation in action, habit, and character lie close to the heart of Zen practice. Continue Reading »

Shortly after her fifth birthday, my granddaughter and I had one of our quiet conversations. We talked about her preschool activities, her best friends, her latest drawings. When we had exhausted those subjects, she paused for a bit, sat back regally in my leather chair, and made a request:

“Grandpa, tell me about the Buddha.”

Her request took me by surprise. During my tenure at Alfred University, I often taught an Honors course entitled The Art of Meditation, in which I introduced undergraduates to the basics of Buddhist meditation. Since retiring, I have given informal talks on the Four Noble Truths, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, and other aspects of the Buddhist tradition to classes and audiences large and small. But until then, I had not attempted to expound Buddhist teachings to a very young child, let alone my granddaughter. What should I tell her? What should I not tell her? What did I wish for her to remember? Continue Reading »

203. The absolute moment

One Sunday morning, a lifetime ago, I sat with my family in the First Methodist Church in Clinton, Iowa. The pew was hard, as if designed to punish us for our sins. Our black-frocked minister was well into his latest long-winded sermon, but I wasn’t listening. My attention was riveted on the elderly man in the pew ahead of me.

On the nape of his leathery neck, deep creases had etched an elongated “X.” Whenever he bowed his head, the creases would recede. When he looked up again, they would re-emerge. As the service continued, these marks of age and experience exhibited various degrees of depth and prominence. During the responsive readings, they nearly vanished. During the singing of the Doxology, which he probably knew by heart, they stood out boldly, like furrows in a freshly plowed field. Continue Reading »

Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi

In his e-book Suffering and Possibility, the Zen teacher Norman Fischer discloses what he calls “the great and beautiful secret” of meditative practice. Elementary in nature but far-reaching in significance, the realization to which he refers has the capacity to transform both our outlook and our experience of everyday life.

Fischer’s general subject is the human condition, of which human suffering, broadly defined, is an inescapable part. Like other teachers in the Zen tradition, Fischer distinguishes between necessary and unnecessary suffering. The former arises from external conditions over which we have little or no control: war, famine, disease, aging, natural disasters, and the like. The latter is created by our own minds, specifically by our conditioned and often unskillful responses to the troubles we incur. Yet, whether human suffering, known as dukkha in Buddhist teachings, be deemed necessary or self-inflicted, it is an integral and unavoidable aspect of human experience.

Continue Reading »