Sunday 28 August 2011

Word of the Day: Still. by Louisa Young

Louisa Young's new book
I have been thinking about words again. Today's word: still.

I wrote a sentence about some ivory elephants still in a glass cabinet, which pleased me because of the double meaning: the elephants remain in the glass cabinet; the elephants are motionless in the glass cabinet. Both suited my purpose.

The connection is fairly obvious: if you stay still, you'll still be in the same place later.

By the time I've been thinking about a word long enough to be thinking that, I have generally reverted to Skeate. (We're on surname terms, Skeate and I, after many years of happy collaboration: its full name is of course Skeate's Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, first published 1882. My edition is 1927, and used to belong to one Rachel M. Thorpe, who wrote her name in the front in nice round handwriting).

'Still', Skeate tells me, is from the same route as stall: Middle English stille, to be motionless; and the verbs stillen, to remain in a place or stall, and Anglo-Saxon stellan, to place. And so on to Anglo Saxon stille, continually, ever. I like that when my car stalls, it is perhaps wanting to go back to its stable. This reminds me of an Italian farmer I used to know who thought motorbikes were no good, because they couldn't just refuel at any handy grass verge, like a horse.

Then - but why does stille mean silent in German? Is it because when you are still you make no noise?

And thus, mind leaping on, I came across a story for you.

There's a very fine writer, historian, and journalism professor at Columbia University, called Alexander Stille. An American, known as Sandro to his friends, he has written phenomenal books about the Mafia, and about Berlusconi. His father, a Russian Jew brought up in Italy, was originally called Mikhail Kamenetzky. Before Mussolini's race laws of 1938 prevented him from working and ultimately forced him to leave Italy, he too was a journalist, the editor of the Corriere della Sera, no less. He and a colleague, the Sardinian writer and translator Giaime Pintor, had adopted a shared nom de plume under which they could continue writing anti-fascist articles: Ugo Stille.

They got it from Rainer Maria Rilke, apparently - a misunderstanding in translation meant they thought Stille to be a proper name. But what a curious - or ironic? - choice! The language is that of the enemy, which to them was also the language of the poetry that they loved; the word means precisely what they were not prepared to be: silent. And they were hardly stationary, either - Alexander's family travelled in two generations from Russia to Lithuania to Italy to New York. Pintor, who may have been recruited by the British secret Service, was only stilled by a Nazi mine, which killed him in 1943. He was 24. After the War, Kamenetzky kept the name, Stille, in honour of his friend, and in due course it became Alexander's.

But then, in their way, these men are still. They are still there, still saying what needs to be said. They are consistent. That's their stall, where the son has set out the same wares as his father and his father's friend: recording and confronting the corrupt and the unjust.

I very much want to read that family history.

In the meantime, have a look at Alexander Stille's book Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. But don't get any ideas from it. I want them.

Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is now out in paperback, kindle & audiobook.


adele said...

This is really interesting, Louisa. Have you seen/read The Garden of the Finzi-Continis? One of the best movies about the war in Italy I have seen. Very moving indeed. Thanks for such a fascinating meditation on one word!

Linda B-A said...

As Adele says, thanks for this word-driven post. Dictionaries should come with a health warning. They're almost (but definitely not) as bad as the internet. I couldn't resist:
STILLICIDE n. (Law) Right or duty relating to dropping of water from eaves on to another's land.

STILLY adj. (poet.) still, quiet. (after VASTY[!]) If only I had a pair of kittens to name...

Mary Hoffman said...

Adèle, the book is SO much better than the film!(I wrote an essay on this subject).

Stillness is a quality I value highly, having none of my own.My favourite actors exhibit it and I try to create characters who have it.

Great post!

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

STILLICIDE is beautiful .... it wd presumably be from the same root as distill, which is from a latin verb, stillare I think, to drip....
I agree mary about the FCs.

H.M. Castor said...

What a moving story behind Alexander Stille's name... And what a lovely demonstration of the delights of dictionaries. I grew up in a family in which the 2-vol OED was fetched to the table at some stage in most meals (I exaggerate, but only slightly). Words & their derivations seemed very delicious to me. Thank you, therefore, for this most flavoursome post!