We all know what ‘original recipe’ means. It means a recipe that has been passed down from someone’s momma to someone’s momma until it passed to someone’s son who figured out how to patent it and start a chain of fast food restaurants.
A recipe involves a formula, a pattern, which would appear to contradict the idea we have formed of ‘original’.
But is there an original pattern for a novel? Is there even an original novel, widely recognized as such, from which sprang the seminal pattern?
These are the sorts of things I wonder about before my life gets more orderly with a plate of scrambled eggs.
To unlock, in a scholarly way, the mysteries of a term such as ‘original novel’, that would appear to be both contradictory and redundant at the same time, is a question I would defer to James Harbeck of sesquiotica, a brilliant blog on word origins. A professional editor, the creator of ‘word tasting notes’ he even manages to make the subject entertaining.
And to unlock the the mystery of what actually qualifies as ‘the original novel’, as in the first novel ever written, you would soon find yourself in a morass of conflicting opinions and ideas that would take you everywhere from The Sumerian Shakespeare to eighteenth century political satire.
In the meantime, my eggs are getting cold, so…Curious Word devotees, here you go:
Original: Comes from the word we know as orient, oriental, meaning East. To the ancients, the east was the source—the origin—of both light and life.
In an interesting connection to our word novel—novel in the modern sense of a structured story with written words—we have the ancient Hebrew word qdm, which also meant east, or ancient.
Who was Cadmus, according to the Greeks? The originator of their alphabet and writing. The original writer, as such.
‘Cadmus’ name is of uncertain etymology. It has been connected to Semitic qdm “the east” and Greek kekasmai (<*kekadmai) “to shine”.
Did our original writer write novels?
Novel: comes originally from ‘nova’ meaning new star. This provides an interesting link to the Greek word above, kekasmai, ‘to shine’.
Our current use of it, however, comes via Latin, from the word nouus, and nouellus, and finally to novella, a short or middle length story…which the English took and shortened novella into novel and increased the length of the story. Funny how they did that.
All of this still keeping the meaning of ‘something new’, something born.
Linked to the ancient origin of novel is ‘novelty’, and this is, as some argue, why the novel has never been given proper credence as an art form. The Greeks dismissed it as such, giving a Muse to Poetry, Music, Art, and the like. To the novel there has been given no star-like brilliance.
Novelists still are aching to shine.
‘There is…very little demand for genuine criticism of the novel. Expert advice in this field is not felt to be necessary. It is a very easy kind of book to read. The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious, and as making more strenuous demands upon him. When delighted by poetry, music, or painting he is inclined to ask why he should be thus affected. He is aware of some complicated process of statement and response. Endeavouring to understand this experience he turns to critical comment for elucidation. He is less likely to feel all this when he enjoys a novel; that pleasure strikes him as simple, natural, and familiar. He cannot remember a time when he did not enjoy stories; his pleasure has blossomed from very early roots and from the days when his mother used to tell him about The Three Bears at bed-time. He has been so long and so well acquainted with this kind of satisfaction that, when he encounters it as an adult in an expanded form, he takes his response for granted, as he did as a child.’
Therefore the origin of story-telling, and eventual novel writing…is as old as the first baby being rocked at a cradle. Something new, something born…
In other words, the original novel came from someone’s momma. (Thanks, mom.)