Tonight I listened to a conversation on the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Ken Myers interviewed a professor about Tolkien and his use of language.

Tolkien had a passion for words. He studied their roots, the way they reached back into the annals of history. He was a scholar of the ancient languages, and saw in them layered richness and depth. One word can tell many stories.

He called them the ghosts of words.

One ancient word, for example, has four different nuances of meaning: 1) a thunder clap, 2) human rage, 3) divine justice, and 4) demonic fury.

We have lost a sense of the direct meaning of many words, he said. For example, the word delirious means “to go off the furrow,” a plowing metaphor. It conjures a maddened plowman crisscrossing chaotically through his field. And the word amusement means “without the muse.”

It is said, in my family, that my grandfather – Clifford Bernard Ostergren – used to sit in the evenings and read the dictionary or the World Book. It used to sound so dull. But now I suspect that maybe Grandpa poured through those ponderous volumes because he had an eye for the ghosts.

I want to see them too.

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