Picture, Texture, Scripture

Every now and then you should take a close look at the words you use. Arm yourself with a good a dictionary–one that tells you not just what words mean but where they came from. I’m often grateful for the existence of the Online Etymology Dictionary. Just today, in fact, I uttered a silent prayer of thanks (though its creator says he holds no particular faith) as I discovered the intimate connection between the words “picture” and “scripture”. I was led here by a series of early morning thoughts.

I often compare writing to drawing. Both commit marks to a page in order to evoke an image in the mind of the reader/viewer. Both make use of relatively simple means. I got to thinking of how neatly similar the words “drawing” and “writing” are, and how their likeness translates (as it were) even into their Latinate cousins, e.g., description and depiction. Ordinarily, however, I would contrast pictures, not with “scriptures”, which has too much religious baggage, but with “texts”. I’m always unsatisfied when the word forms don’t line up so neatly, however.

Draw-ing, write-ing: I like that. De-pict-ion, de-script-ion: I like that too. On this model, I would put “texture”, not “text”, across from “picture”. (“Pict” means something too different, though the root is the same.) Maybe, I thought, the etymologies could help me recover a sense of order, but, as it turns out, I appear to be more or less stuck with the contrast between pictures and scriptures, which is much more appropriate than I thought.

“Picture” leads us through the Latin “pictura” (for “painting”) from pictus, the past participle of pingere “to make pictures, to paint, to embroider.” We are now directed to the verb “to paint” which comes from Old French peint and then, again, to the Latin pingere, which, we are told, comes the Proto-Indo-European root *peig- which means to “cut” or “mark by incision”. “Scripture,” meanwhile, leads us to the Late Latin scriptura, meaning “the writings contained in the Bible” or “a passage from the Bible,” which in turn stems from classical Latin, denoting simply “a writing, character, inscription.” But this, it turns out, comes from scriptus, which is the past participle of scribere and this comes the from the Proto-Indo-European root *skribh-, which, thrillingly, also means “to cut”. That is, both words–“picture” and “scripture”–stem from roots that suggest marking up a surface. Indeed, the Online Etymology Dictionary connects the PIE skribh to Greek skariphasthai “to scratch an outline, sketch,” Latin scribere “to carve marks in wood, stone, clay,” Lettish skripat “scratch, write;” and Old Norse hrifa, “scratch.”

In fact, I had been thinking of something along these lines this morning. There are “natural” pictures, I thought to myself. The camera obscura must have been discovered by accident in a cave or through a pinhole tear in a tent. But even a shadow is a natural picture (at least of the outline) of the tree or person that casts it. The footprint, too, is a “picture” of the foot, and one that is produced through no particular artifice. Is there an equally “natural” form of scripture? Is there a kind of writing that we merely imitate, a natural process of inscription that taught us how to construct a sentence? Perhaps there is. Perhaps the individual footprint is a picture, but a series of footprints tells a story. “Someone walked here, and went that way,” it seems to tell us. Did we learn to write by interpreting these natural signs, these records of the events?

We all know that “text” stems from the PIE verb tek, “to weave, to fabricate, to make wicker”. The root of the “article” is the act of “joining” things together. Perhaps we can begin to see how our experiences are woven from materials, pictures and scriptures, that are cut from the manifold of images that come to us, willy-nilly, in experience. Whether we try to capture these images by drawing them or writing them, the task is to mark up a surface and make and impression.

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