The ancestors are still speaking.

One of our very greatest inheritances from the forefathers and mothers is language. If we listen closely, we can hear their voices today.

2500 years ago, the ancestors bound their thought together with alliteration, what we may think of as initial rhyme. Many of these phrases—hundreds, if not thousands, of years old—are with us still.

 

Might and main. “Might” is physical strength; “main” (OE megn) is non-physical (psychic, spiritual) strength—“soul-strength,” one might say. To do something with all one's might and main means to use all one's available resources. Those seeking a word for “energy” that doesn't reek of patchouli may wish to consider “main.”

Kith and kin. It's interesting how frequently these inherited alliterative phrases refer to a totality. “Kith and kin” means “everyone”: both those that you're related to (kin), and those that you know (kith). Preserved like a flower in amber, the ancient word for “know personally” also survives in “uncouth,” originally meaning “unknown.”

Bed and board. Tables take up a lot of room. In the houses and halls of the ancients, where interior space was at a premium, at mealtimes it was customary to set up trestles and boards to eat from. Hence, board, pars pro toto, came to be short for “table.” (“Table” is a French word. The Normans, of course, were the aristos; they could afford to have tables sitting around, uselessly taking up room. Every word's a story.)

Bed and board,” then, means home: where you sleep and eat.

Hale and hearty refers to a state of being in which one is in both physical (“hale”) and psychological (“hearty”) health, and hence, entirely capable.

Field and fold. This pungent phrase refers to food-getting in its entirety: both agriculture, what is grown (“field”) and animal husbandry, what is raised (“fold”). A fold is technically a pen in which sheep are kept at night to protect them from predators, but by extension here means, not just the animals kept in the fold, but domestic animals generally.

House and home. This one needs no interpretation to any English-speaker, but elegantly captures the combined resonance of one's own place in both its physical (“house”) and emotional (“home”) aspects.

 

What we see in each of these instances—and there are many more—is the rhetorical device known as hendiadys (hen-DIE-a-deeze), a phrase in which the parts add up to more than the sum of their total.

Rhyme makes things easier to remember. (That's why it's easier to remember a poem than a speech.) Here, the collective memory of the language has preserved for us ancient ways of seeing and thinking.

When the ancestors speak, let the wise give ear.