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importance of being earnest

February 24, 2009

After class Monday, after our initial discussion of John Muir and his passionate yet passive description of the wind-storm in the Sierra Mountains–being intensely in the middle of it (one might say to the point of insanity) yet also disappearing his perspective into that of the individuality of the trees [the paragraph on 254 that I pointed our attention to: turning from the anthropocentric and anthropomorphic metaphors of the passionate music of the storm to the ‘marked individuality in almost every tree’]. I started to recall the word Thoreau uses that I borrow for the Earth’s Eye home page and for our exploration in this course: earnest. I wonder if this word, earnest, is another way to account for the combination of passion and perspective that we continue to see, that seems to reiterate the poetry-science dynamic we explored with Thoreau. I sense it is there in Leopold in his combination of aesthetics and ethics. 

I began to explore the word in the OED and found some interesting buried history. Here are some of the tracks.

[OE. eorneste, f. EARNEST n.1; in ME. no unequivocal examples have been found; perh. the word died out in OE., and was afterwards developed afresh from the attrib. use of the n.] 

    1. Of persons: Serious, as opposed to trifling; usually in emphatic sense, intensely serious, gravely impassioned, in any purpose, feeling, conviction, or action; sincerely zealous. Of feelings, convictions, etc.: Intense, ardent. Of actions or words: Proceeding from or implying intensity of feeling or conviction.

[linking to earnest as noun]

[OE. eornust fem. = OHG. ernust fem., neut., MHG. ernest, mod.G. ernst masc., MDu. ernstaernst (of similar meaning):{em}OTeut.*ernusti, perh. f. root *ers, found also in ERRE (obs.) anger. A different ablaut form of the same root, with similar suffix, appears to exist in OE. ornest wager of battle, ON. orrosta, late OE. orrest battle. 
  The form ernes may possibly represent a distinct word:{em}OE. {asg}eornes, ({asg}eornnes) eagerness, strength of desire; cf. EARN v.3; it was however in 15th c. completely identified with the present word.] 

    {dag}1. Ardour in battle; in wider sense, intense passion or desire. Obs.

[linking to earn as verb, which links to yearn]

[app. a var. of YEARN:{em}OE. {asg}eornian; cf. dial. ear for year. All the senses of the present word, exc. 3, also belong to the form YEARN. The OE. eornian to murmur (Bosw.-T. in pres. pple. eorni{asg}ende), eornfulnes solicitude, eornlice diligently (Leechdoms I. 190), seem to show that the two forms go back to an early period; see Sievers Ags. Gram. (ed. 2) §212. 
  Prof. Skeat (s.v. YEARN) considers that earnyearn to grieve (sense 2 below) are of distinct origin from earnyearn in the sense to desire. He regards the former as a corruption of ME. ERME. But the development of sense from ‘desire’ to ‘sorrow’ presents no serious difficulty; and there is no clear evidence of confusion between the two words.] 

    1. intr. To desire strongly, to long. Also, to earn it. (? refl.)

1579 SPENSER Sheph. Cal. Mar. 76 My courage earnd it to awake. 1596 {emem} F.Q. I. i. 3 His hart did earne To proue his puissance.

    2. To be affected with poignant grief or compassion; also impers. it earns me.



We move in earnest from seriousness to yearning. Thus we see how Leopold combines ethics and elegy in his vision and thinking. Or the way Muir seriously loves his trees, passively yet passionately; the way a scientist can be observing his study from the first-person perspective, in the middle of things, hands on the trees, holding on for dear life. At least if the language they use, we use, is to be believed.

Some other OED saunterings that might be useful.

Ethos (the classical origin for ethic):

[mod.L., a. Gr. {hlenisfrown}{theta}{omicron}{fsigma} character, a person’s nature or disposition. Used by Eng. writers in certain particular applications.] 

    1. [After Arist. Rhet. II. xii-xiv.] The characteristic spirit, prevalent tone of sentiment, of a people or community; the ‘genius’ of an institution or system.


[mod. ad. Gr. {alpha}{ilenis}{sigma}{theta}{eta}{tau}{iota}{kappa}{goacu}{fsigma}, of or pertaining to {alpha}{ilenis}{sigma}{theta}{eta}{tau}{gaacu}, things perceptible by the senses, things material (as opposed to {nu}{omicron}{eta}{tau}{gaacu} things thinkable or immaterial), also ‘perceptive, sharp in the senses’; f. vb. stem {alpha}{ilenis}{sigma}{theta}{epsilon}– ‘feel, apprehend by the senses’

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