Etymology gives us perspective

September 25, 2019

The name of my opera is Imogen, which is also the name of the main character. Imogen is a fairly uncommon name but not unheard of in many countries that used to be part of the British Empire. The name appears to have been invented by Shakespeare for the play Cymbeline (upon which this opera is based). It is derived from the old irish/celtic word for "maiden" or "daughter" which is "ingen". When I found this out a few months ago, I considered changing the name of the character/show because I was trying to remove all gendered language from the libretto. But I let it go, because to my 21st century North American ears, it didn't hold those connotations. It was just a pretty name. 

 

Today, I was asked by the woman who is going to be portraying the role of Kymbeline (Imogen's parent and regent) in the workshop "how should I pronounce this name?" which sent me down the linguistic rabbit hole.

It turns out that the old Irish word "ingen" came from the primitive Irish word ᚔᚅᚔᚌᚓᚅᚐ (inigena) which came from the proto-indo-european words *h₁én (“within”) + *ǵenh₁- (“to produce, beget”). Which to my mind signifies "one who is born", which literally means everyone or anyone. 


Other words that have grown out of that particular proto-indo-european word are the English word "indigenous" (presumably because indigenous people are born in a certain place), the Pashto Iranian word زېږېدل‎ (zēẓ̌ēdəl, “to be born”), the Latin word gignere (to cause), plus the word genus which means origin, the Sanskrit: जज्ञि (jájñi, “germinating, shooting; seed”), and the word "ingen" which in Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish means nothing or nobody. Also, the word "kin" (as in one's relatives) seems to be related to this same proto-indo-european word.

To show that sometimes logic doesn't always lead one in the correct direction when it comes to etymology, I thought I was onto something when I remembered the German word/prefix "irgend" meaning "any" or "some", but alas, that word is unrelated to this root ("irgend" seems to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon hwęrgen, in which hwar means "where" and -gin, is the indefinite particle "any"). False cognates are real. 

But it was an interesting and fruitful exercise to do this research. Knowing this kind of deep background information on the words we choose can help us inform our art. I hope Imogen is a piece that tells a universal story of love (both familial and romantic), trust, and honor that resonates with all people, all of us kin, all of us humans who are indigenous to the planet Earth.

(Image from https://jakubmarian.com/evolution-of-the-pronoun-i-in-indo-european-languages/)

 

 

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