67. Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here

I once made a journey through HEL.

HEL had nothing to do with eternal damnation, though it sometimes felt like it. HEL was an (eminently appropriate) acronym for History of the English Language, one of my college courses. For the record, it was a good class. It was also really, really hard.

Although my journey through HEL was a good deal more comfortable than Dante’s stroll through the Inferno, it was not without its difficulties. My fellow students and I learned a little history, a little linguistics, a little philology and a little grammar. We also memorized a number of old literary passages, including the Lord’s Prayer in Anglo-Saxon (which sounded eerily like some kind of evil incantation) and the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

We often joked about giving our professor a bronze plaque on which were inscribed the words Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. He could put the plaque above the doorway to the classroom, we mused, and inspire students to new heights of academic diligence.

On the day of the final exam, one of my fellow students cackled demonically upon entering the room and said, “Welcome to HEL!” After a pause he added in his normal voice, “Whoa, I hope I never have to say that again.”

The class taught us a number of interesting things. Did you know, for example, that awesome and awful, which have completely opposite meanings, originally meant the same thing? Both words designated something that evoked a sense of awe. Awesome eventually came to represent things that inspired awe and amazement: Chuck Norris’s beard is a good example. Awful eventually came to represent things that inspired awe and horror, like natural disasters and teen pop stars.

I’m glad I journeyed through HEL. It gave me a better understanding of the origin, development and mechanics of the English language—and the English language is kinda what I’ve chosen to do for a living.

HEL also gave me a new appreciation for the words we speak and write every day, not to mention greater sympathy for poor old Dante.

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