If I were a very tiny mole, a mole the size of a silverfish, I would make my burrow in Volume X. of Great Uncle Mole’s Oxford English Dictionary, not in any old place but quite specifically in the pages containing words beginning with ‘um’.
After I put murmurs to bed last week, it slowly dawned on me that in the writing of it I had fallen in love. I had fallen in love with my umbrella. I had fallen in love with the shadow it cast, the umbra, and the space it created, a space that was just mine, defined, even in motion. And I had fallen in love with ‘um’ words.
Um. Just those two letters provide a pause, suspend time while one’s mind takes its time to meander about for the right word, an apposite phrase, or for a thought to settle; it allows breathing space, time to step back and observe, to consider, or to delve deeper, so deep, sometimes, that the ‘um’ becomes an ‘om’, words disappear altogether and only breath remains.
Um was an unexpected comfort when I was a young mole, struggling with a strange new language. In German, ‘um’ is a kind of enabler, translating as something like ‘in order to’ or ‘so as to’, or it can mean ‘around’. It domesticated words whose meanings might otherwise have been frighteningly uncontained. As a prefix it allowed you to work with what you already had: umbauen – convert; umarbeiten – revise, rework; umbilden – re-form. Or it implied surroundings, metaphorical or real: Umgebung – neighbourhood, Umwelt – environment, Umstand – circumstance, Umgehen – circle around, keep company with, think about. I missed ‘um’ in English.
But now I find that it was there once. The same Old Norse roots gave us wonderful words. We had umbehold which is to observe and take in what is around you; it speaks to the material, local world, of what is within reach, within eye and ear shot but also, it feels to me, retains a sense of wonderment. Or how about the gentleness of umfold – to enclose, to shelter, to embrace; or to umbthink – to think about, consider, muse on, ponder; or umbedelve which is what a mole likes doing best. How could we have been so careless as to have lost these words four centuries or so ago?
And then, as my tiny mole-eyes slither down the entries of the OED, I come to all those shadow words, the ones that belong to the world beneath the umbrella’s canopy. Before the casting out of all those um and umb words, this sheltered space, like that provided by the foliage of a tree, would have been called an umbrage. It’s true that we haven’t actually lost that one, only its benign meaning. An umbrage came to represent a shadowy appearance, a ghostlike presence. It morphed into a suspicion, an inkling of something nasty in the metaphorical woodshed, and now, how can it be? – it represents a state of high dudgeon.
In the world umfolded within the umbrage of my umbrella, such later usages will have no place. It will be a space where umming is celebrated and within the pauses provided by the ums I shall occupy myself umbeholding the world as I wander through it and umbedelving in my molesoul to ponder its mysteries.