Take a Word.... PATH or PATHWAY: Etymology, Phrases, a Poem & a Short Story
Choose your Path
Old English paþ, pæþ "path, track," from West Germanic *patha- (cognates: Old Frisian path, Middle Dutch pat, Dutch pad, Old High German pfad, German Pfad "path"), of uncertain origin. The original initial -p- in a Germanic word is an etymological puzzle. Don Ringe ("From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic," Oxford 2006) describes it as "An obvious loan from Iranian ..., clearly borrowed after Grimm's Law had run its course." Watkins says the word is "probably borrowed (? via Scythian) from Iranian *path-," from PIE root *pent- "to tread, go, pass" (source of Avestan patha "way;" see find (v.)), but this is too much of a stretch for OED and others. In Scotland and Northern England, commonly a steep ascent of a hill or in a road
So some supposition and a little lee-way regarding this word; interesting!
used in the same way and delightfully described in the same source as ‘an etymological tautology’
Where does your path lead you?
By now your mind has probably conjured up an image of your own familiar or favourite path. It might be the front path from the street to your house. It might be a garden path of your childhood or a path through the woods where you played or explored, daring to venture more deeply into unknown territory.
Conversely, the path could be one of terror; one in a fairy tale which led children into danger, to the lair of a dragon or the witch’s house in the darkness of the woods; the path to war so often taken by soldiers, to freedom or to surrender.
Choice of Pathways
The Path to Happiness
Everyone chooses a path to follow,
maybe to joy or maybe to sorrow.
How do we know which one to take
when a decision we need to make?
How can we know which way is best?
What’s the right way, is it a test?
Do we take the path of least resistance
or forge a pathway into the distance?
Going down the wrong path is costly
but taking a chance is what happens mostly.
The path of righteousness doesn’t run smooth,
the primrose path* would be a bad move.
You might be led down the garden path
and end up the butt of a joke, a laugh.
You might just follow the beaten path,
play it safe, be the mean on the graph.
Or you might cut a pathway straight through the crowd,
hoping to find your niche, to be proud,
or beat a path to someone’s door,
but fall to your knees, pride in tatters on the floor.
You get back on the war-path, fighting to gain
that longed-for career path, ignoring the pain.
You’ll cross paths with someone who’ll show you the way,
that path to happiness - it will come… one day.
How many paths?
All around us we see footpaths, public paths or pathways. In the country we find bridle paths for horses, meandering paths between the trees, tow-paths along canals, paths which tantalise as they lead around a bend and out of sight. Where do they go? What waits for us around that corner?
Choosing your path can be tricky, not just when you’re trying to follow directions to a particular destination but when it is a path to the future, a path which might decide your fate.
May I introduce George, whose choice of path surprised him.
A Short Story: The Path to... Nowhere?
George was nothing out of the ordinary. He was tall, dark and average-looking. His temperament was even, his humour kindly and he enjoyed watching tele. His office job trotted along nicely, nine to five; no perks but nor were there any onerous drawbacks. His journey to work involved a short walk, a thirty-minute train ride, a few strides around the corner and there he was, ensconced at his desk for the duration, bar a short lunch-break shared with a sandwich and a cup of coffee. The bland office surroundings suited his bland job and his bland life; however, there was an occasional rebel thought which affected his brain like a paring knife. Did bland equal enough?
His private life gave him nothing to sing and dance about; no wife, no girlfriend, the occasional drink in the pub on a Sunday. He was happy enough; no complications, no worries, no upsets. Life didn’t send him any wobblies and he didn’t want to know about anyone else’s trials and tribulations. It suited him to have his one bedroom flat in suburbia, decorated in white and cream with a few prints on the wall and striped curtains to make it look manly. Well, it suited him most of the time.
Just to be contrary, life was about to deliver George a wobbly.
A path across a field
Friday morning came around on time, George was on his usual train, settled with the morning paper. Five minutes later everything juddered to a halt. George looked out of the window and saw the trees, cows, backyards and houses that normally decorated his morning ride. He sat contemplating a small area of countryside by the track for a good ten minutes more. The train had not moved nor had there been any announcement over the useless tannoy. The usual ‘Sor… for….chchzzkk… d’lay… leaves…chch… track.. zzkkshh… shortly’ never arrived.
George noticed a path across the morning-fresh field beneath his window. Its footprint meandered through the grass and disappeared into some trees. A break in the greenery saw a further section but no more. He wondered briefly where it led, then before he knew it he’d opened the door, jumped down and was halfway across the field.
What had he done?
His shoes gathered the dew from the grass, made his socks wet. He kicked off the shoes, peeled away the socks and felt the grass tickling his toes, with the occasional sting to remind him this was reality. A fellow passenger watched this strange figure skip and jump as George continued along the beaten path towards the trees. It stopped now and then to pick a buttercup, put it under his chin and seem to remark, “I love butter!”. The onlooker decided that perhaps the man’s job had suddenly become too much to cope with and he felt sorry for the diminishing speck until it vanished into the trees.
George stopped as he entered the wood; the path had petered out before a dip in the dense undergrowth. A bowl of earth gave him the choice of going downwards before attempting the upward far side, or of skirting the bowl and resuming the path attempting to hide beneath the bushes some metres away. He chose to skirt around it, not wishing to feel enclosed by the earth. He had a pathological fear of being buried alive, hence the statement in his will that he wished to be cremated.
No going back
George had felt elated crossing the grass but his sense detected a more worrying atmosphere here in the dappled shade which shifted with the clouds and the breeze. His impulsive behaviour asked him what had happened to the real George. Should he have stayed on the train? Why did he escape from the carriage and choose that verdant path? He was in uncertain territory and it felt… disturbing with a touch of freedom.
There was no going back ever again, he realised. He’d finally broken free. The mundane quotidian wave had shaken him loose and he knew there was a reason. He knew there was something waiting for him on the other side. Bad choice of phrase, thought George. The other side of the trees was what he was hoping for.
There it was. The path opened like a book, beckoning him. He strode on, feeling cracked soil and a few stones pushing his unshod soles. He didn’t mourn his long-abandoned briefcase, nor his tie now hanging on a branch a few strides back, nor his newly-shed jacket adorning a holly bush. A clearing in the distance revealed a glass and metal object. Here, the path went left and right. He would be forced to make a choice. George didn’t like making decisions. The immediate alternative was to stop. He stopped.
The object was a bus-stop. How boring, thought George, I followed an intriguing pathway to find something refreshing, something different, certainly not a bus-stop. He sat, as if waiting for.. well, a bus naturally. He sat in anything but a natural manner. He looked up and down road. He stared across the road, looking for a sign which might explain why he’d ended up here. What had possessed him to jump from a train? He never behaved rashly. He always measured a situation before acting in any way at all. In fact sometimes he just kept on measuring.
As he glanced up and down the road, he noticed a woman walking towards the bus-stop. She sat down next to him.
“Which bus do you take?” she asked, glancing with raised eyebrow at his bare feet. Not wishing to sound like an idiot he replied,
“The number 7. I take it to work.” He’d seen this bus going in the opposite direction. My goodness, he was beginning to think quickly! In reply to the unspoken question, he said, “I took a short cut across the field - shoes got wet…” he shrugged.
“That’s my bus too!” she said.
The conversation developed. They both got on the 7 and George found himself out of town in a suburbia he did not recognise. George listened to her chatter and, to his puzzlement, found himself taking part in a relaxing conversation as though he’d known this woman for years. He wasn’t sure about this. Women usually terrified him. This one didn’t. The women at work bossed him around. This one didn’t. The women at work were starchy, all married. They hardly smiled. This one did. George smiled back.
Then he had a decision to make. “This is my stop,” she said.
“Mine too!” said George. “Would you like to meet for lunch?” Where did those words come from? What was going on today?
George begins to live
Thus the blandness was shattered. George’s uncharacteristic action had led him to a new situation. He’d followed a path to the future. He’d acted on impulse.
He could have stayed on the train. He could have remained at the bus stop. He could have left the bus and never seen this woman again. But he didn’t. The path he pursued, the decisions he made, changed his life forever. That rebel thought had surfaced, shoved him out of his robotic state, forced him to live, to wake up and smell the buttercups, feel the grass, cast off the mundane and mould his own future. It beat being buried alive in an empty life.
What he didn’t know was the history of those before him on that chosen path. All had reacted but not all had shed the old life, not all had made the best decisions, not all had found what they needed. George discovered happiness. George realised that his vanishing path had led him to the unexpected, though it was a possibility he’d almost missed. Opportunities were there to be explored. Decisions had to be made, right or wrong, to be able to advance, to learn, to be in control.
George had just begun to live and he would turn the next corner eagerly. George was alive!
Read & Explore!
Pathways of the Sea
Paths 'write' a story
I’m going to quote an author I’ve only lately come across but one I admire, Robert Macfarlane. His genre is travel writing but his prose is more like poetry and his phraseology is superior to many of our well-known and loved writers past and present. As a writer, I love his analogies:
“Stories, like paths, relate in two senses; they recount and they connect…. A disputed etymology suggests that our word ‘book’ derives from the High German bok, meaning ‘beech’ - the tree on whose smooth bark marks and signs were often incised in order to indicate routes and paths. Our verb ‘to write’ at one point in its history referred specifically to track-making; the Old English writan meant ‘to incise runic letters in stone’; thus one would ‘write’ a line by drawing a sharp point over and into a surface - by harrowing a track.”
He gives us other similarities
“As the pen rises from the page between words, so the walker’s feet rise and fall between paces, and as the deer continues to run as it bounds from the earth, and the dolphin continues to swim even as it leaps again and again from the sea, so writing and wayfaring are continuous activities, a running stitch, a persistence of the same seam or stream.”
Doesn’t that conjure up a clear scene, a fascinating idea, to you, that our writing is a running stitch connecting a plethora of ideas and concepts?
Mr Macfarlane brings to our attention that there are paths on the sea as well as on land:
“Paths of long usage exist on water…. The oceans are seamed with seaways - routes whose course is determined by prevailing winds and currents - and rivers are among the oldest ways of all.” Thus a port is not the end of a land-bound path, it is the beginning of a pathway across water, joining together the ports of many countries, thereby creating an intricate network of paths across the world, uninterrupted.
A review of his book ‘The Old Ways’ says: “Macfarlane’s writing soars. Read this and it will be impossible to take an unremarkable walk again” (Metro). The book does indeed make you aware of any path you travel; its meaning, its usage and its possible history.
What lies ahead and who has passed this way before you?
The Unknown before and History behind you
Paths have been created due to certain usage, such as ‘coffin paths’ which have flat ‘resting stones’ on the uphill side, helping the bearers on their way to the graveyard.
“The prehistoric track-ways of the English Downs can still be traced because on their close chalky soil, hard-packed by centuries of trampling, daisies flourish……..
The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also. The imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land - onwards in space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers.”
It took that reminder to make me think about paths familiar to me, mostly from childhood. We do indeed wonder who has trod a path before us and why. Were they just strolling, running away, working or exploring? Some of their stories are well-known, some can only be surmised. Historical paths exist, such as the Fosse Way, built by the Romans and connecting Exeter in the South West of England to Lincoln further North, and the chalk South Downs pathway in Sussex, a track travelling from Beachy Head above Eastbourne to Winchester at the western end, a track which countless walkers, wanderers, carts and horses have chosen as their route between sea and weald.
Purpose & Destination
I have looked out across that Sussex Weald, wondering what purpose others before me might have had, whilst I was merely out for a Sunday’s walk in the clear, fresh air, a vast sky above me and a misty, stretching vista of fields below where church spires pointed to heaven and cows mooed their contentment. Many of us might choose the same path but each has an individual purpose or destination in mind.
Choose your paths wisely or just enjoy where they take you but, above all, be aware of what they show you and the history they recount.
Go through, follow the path, take a chance!
I came across this phrase that I hadn’t heard of before; the primrose path. It refers to earthly delights that come to a bad end. Why ‘primrose’? Make of that what you will!
Copyright annart/AFC May 2016
Robert Macfarlane: ‘The Old Ways - A Journey on Foot’, published by Penguin Non-fiction, ISBN 978-0-141-03058-6
If you want to know more about this author, do visit: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/27/robert-macfarlane-word-hoard-rewilding-landscape. It gives you an insight into his view of the link between language and landscape.