Martin Heidegger, the infamous philosopher, had an innovative way of thinking through various philosophical propositions: he would sift through the history of the ideas under consideration by examining the words that contained them–their etymologies. His method was fairly close to an archaeological dig, except that the living language was the ruin, and the ruined language was alive. He argued that in order to understand what we mean, we had to understand what we meant. It’s a method that’s been adopted by some pretty reputable cats since then, Jacques Derrida, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gorgio Agamben, and quite a few others, and so I thought for Thanksgiving, why not take a look at the word that contains the idea that puts all of us around a table with people we may or may not like, eating ourselves into a stupor, and trying to forget that another year just snuck out the back door and is on its way to Rome, along with youth and idealism.
The celebration dates back to the 17th century when all those intrepid Europeans realized they packed a little too light and needed some help from the Natives, so they had a feast to celebrate the good nature of the savages, which was a nice break from all the massacring and proselytizing. It was such a welcome break that they decided to make a habit of it, because it turned out that all the other holidays were celebrations of massacres, or God, or the massacre of a God, and it would be really nice when taking a break from the preaching and the killing if they weren’t celebrating either one. Of course, it was a little tough for them to give up murder and religion altogether, so they decided to elevate the murder of a turkey to a religion and make it an official holiday.
The word itself, “thanksgiving,” dates from 1533, and is found in A Supper of the Lord by William Tyndale, who was famous for translating the Bible into English and coining some real gems, like, “fight the good fight” and “it came to pass,” and as a reward, he was strangled at the stake in 1536 before being cooked like a turkey for offending the King of England, which was no kind of thanks, but a certain kind of giving.
A Supper for the Lord, in which you’ll find the first instance of “thanksgiving”–that is, if you feel like making your way through a little Middle English–is all about that other great feast. The most celebrated “last meal” in history may not have included a roasted turkey or candied yams, but it had lots of family drama, complete with a judgmental father, a conniving brother, a hot cousin, and all of the women out of the picture and in the kitchen, while the men talked about work and whatever passed for football around the Sea of Galilee circa 33 A.D. Of course, it’s not customary for the guest of honor to be carved up like a turkey, but that’s what happened a few days later when the Pharisees got upset that someone was having a party, which is pretty much what always upsets fundamentalists, which the Pharisees were, because if God had wanted us to have a good time, he wouldn’t have invented eternal damnation forever-and-ever, amen.
If you dig a little deeper, I mean linguistically, you’ll find out that “giving” goes all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root, “-ghabh,” which means both “to give” and “to receive” and is the same root for the word, “habit.” And “thanks” has its roots in the Proto-Indo-European, “-tong,” which means “to think” or “to feel.” So that “giving,” in its guts, carries both ends of the circuit, the giving and the receiving, and “thanks” is just keeping something in mind, remembering, recalling, experiencing the exchange of one thing for another: groping the inside of this for that.
Second helping? Please.
Thanks. You’re welcome.
No problem. Happy to help.
I see you there. I see you too.
Here’s my hand. Here’s two.
Of course, the exchange is pretty weighty when you get right down to it, a cross for some good news, a strangulation for a trope, a murder for a reminder, a kingdom for a truth, a turkey for a thanks. Still, it’s a universal exchange, a cosmological rule of the market that sometimes puts you at the table and sometimes on the plate. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!