- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 29/06/2013
- etymology, le mot juste, Linguistics, Polish
Yesterday, in Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Fiesta del Chivo, I came across a word I didn’t know. It was: miríada.
For my sins, I am accustomed to skipping over words that I don’t recognise, particularly in a long book like this one. My Spanish is of a sufficiently competent level to be able to read around most lacunae, which will typically be a bit of vocabulary I don’t know (facial expressions; flora, fauna and food; latinamericanisms; recondite literary flourishes, etc.) without losing the thread or the sense of the sentence.
But it is particularly agreeable, linguistically, to see a word for the first time, prepare to disregard it, and then suddenly realise that I know what it means. This is what happened with miríada – it lodged in my short term memory, and about half a page later I realised that it meant myriad!
Particularly agreeable, because myriad is a word I am fond of. It means ‘a huge number of’, and comes, via Medieval French, from the Late Latin myrias (gen. myriadis) “ten thousand”, from the Greek myrias (gen. myriados), also meaning ten thousand.
The Greeks themselves derived this word from myrios, a word of unknown origin which meant ‘innumerable, countless’. (As an aside, this is a nice example of the way that words can sometimes suggest an entire world view. Would it be too fanciful to imagine that the evolution of the Greek use of the word reflects an attempt to quantify exactly how much ‘countless’ was?) [See * below!]
This word is also the root of an ancient French measure of distance, which was resurrected during the revolutions: the Myriamètre, which constituted ten thousand metres.
In any case, myriad is one of those words which generates huge controversy among prescriptivist grammarians, many of whom believe that ‘myriad’ functions exactly like ‘many’: there were myriad pigeons on the roof. This is indeed how it tends to be used, but in fact the OED cites a myriad (humour me) of different applications of the word:
a myriad [‘countless number’] of NPpl
myriads [‘countless numbers’] of NPpl
myriad [‘a countless number of’] NPpl
a myriad [‘countless number of’] NPpl
myriads [by itself] ‘countless multitudes, hosts’
a myriad [by itself] ‘a countless multitude, throng’
Thus, virtually any formulation is perfectly OK, although I personally prefer the ‘there were myriad pigeons’ form.
Coleridge furnishes one of my favourite uses of the word, when he talks about “our myriad-minded Shakespeare”. A have never heard a finer or more apt literary epithet.
*STOP PRESS: a correspondent sent me the following, from an article about Taoism. Serendipities abound!:
The number ten thousand in this context is not an exact number in Chinese. Traditionally, ten thousand was thought of as such an unimaginably big number that it became the equivalent of infinity. The concept includes everything you can point to or even name — all of reality.
It is sometimes translated as the “myriad creatures” or the “ten thousand beings,” but that makes one falsely assume that the concept includes only living creatures. The ten thousand things also includes inanimate objects (such as rocks, buildings, stars), emptiness (like outer space or vacuums), and abstractions (such as dreams, thoughts, principles, beliefs, language, the Internet).
The same correspondent also observes that in Polish the word is miriady, plural, and is used mainly in the expression ‘myriads of stars’ (miriady gwiazd).