March 8, 2016KR BlogBlogChatsEnthusiamsReading

Gender fluidity versus genre fluidity and hybridity’s hubris

In her amazing SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard writes that “Greek and Roman intellectuals were fascinated by word derivations, which they were convinced gave the key not just to the origin of the word but also its essential meaning. They were sometimes correct in their analysis, and sometimes extravagantly wrong.”

As I primarily write poetry, anagrams have always been one of my focal linguistic obsessions—the word resistance reworked into the word ancestries, silent into listen, a decimal point into I’m a dot in place, etc.—but derivations consistently run a close second. No matter the language, every word spoken or written contains a long trail of linguistic detritus, and obviously humanity’s interest in the riches contained in that waste have been longstanding. The derivations of the words hybrid and genre are two words that, for different reasons, I’ve recently become semi-fascinated with.

The English-known definition of genre (n.), for instance, is derived from the French genre, the Francophile version of which, circa the 18th century, meant “kind/sort/style.” The 18th century French genre took its root from the 12th century Old French gendre, meaning “kind, species; character; gender.”  Further, the French gendre was itself derived from the Latin genus; “race, stock, family; kind, rank, order; species.” As well as, not surprisingly, “(male or female) sex.” The way the English-defined term genre is commonly used today can also be traced back to the 18th century: “a particular style of art.” But it’s the tightly woven threads between the common-day definitions of gender and genre that’s most notable. Genre fluidity vis-à-vis gender fluidity—the kernel for both terms is contained in that Latinate root-word genus. As the social constructs of both gender and genre are constantly in flux—or over altogether—the fact that both words share a proverbial mother and father is supremely interesting.

Coined around 1600, the derivation of the English-known hybrid (n.) comes from the Latin hybrida, which itself is a variant of ibrida, meaning “mongrel,” specifically “the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar.” As a melding of two disparate things into one unified thing, hybrid first gained prominence around 1850, a prominence which has steadily grown in scope, especially in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

But the most interesting thing about hybrid’s derivation? Its close relationship with the word hubris (n.), which is derived from the Greek hybris and initially meant “presumption toward the gods.” That the nature of one’s hybridity, artistic or otherwise, might locate itself within one’s own hubris is intriguing, insofar as, as a contemporary society, it seems that we often tend to believe that to be multitudinous, to write multitudinously, is to be better in some way, shape, or form. Such multi-scope valuing isn’t new, of course—as far back as 188,1 Walt Whitman contained multitudes, and more recently, in the ballyhooed anthology American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of American Poetry, editor Cole Swensen asserted that “the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized,” going on to state in one of the volume’s introductory prefaces,

Hybrid writing tolerates a high degree of the restless, the indeterminate, and the uncanny because, like the best writing of any era, it doesn’t seek to reinforced received ideas or social position as much as it aims to stimulate reflection and to incite thoughts and feelings.

That may very well be true. And yet at least some of the work currently being categorized as hybrid is perhaps defined as such due to our own subconscious arrogance; we believe we’re making something different than our predecessors made and thus need a new word by which to categorize it. To be clear, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. To feel that one’s work holds merit, especially in terms of everything that came before it, is a substantial accomplishment, one that not every writer is able to access at all times. What’s in the work—the work itself—matters more than how it comes to be defined.

In Beard’s view, the ancient Romans were obsessed by derivations because their own cultural history was one of myth and mystery; the idea of Rome “had always been an ethically fluid concept,” and that fluidity helped serve a Roman sense of destiny, of place. My own derivative fascination is, admittedly, far less lofty—as someone who plays with language on a daily basis, I just think it’s cool to know how meaning evolves over time and is never fixed. But to know a word’s history is to be educated about its future, and such knowledge is an asset for any and every writer.