17 September, 2006

History of the Nod: Part III

Here therefore is the first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter.

— Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605), 4.3
Thus far has been an account of the word nod in English. But what about nodding itself? Anthropology has traditionally been fascinated by gestures—but much less attention has been paid to the nod than to the myriad movements of the hand. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin provided a famous account of the nod's origin:
We give a vertical nod of approval with a smile to our children, when we approve of their conduct; and shake our heads laterally with a frown, when we disapprove. With infants, the first act of denial consists in refusing food; and I repeatedly noticed with my own infants, that they did so by withdrawing their heads laterally from the breast, or from anything offered them in a spoon. In accepting food and taking it into their mouths, they incline their heads forwards.
Darwin goes on to note the distinction between the assenting head pushed forward, and the refusing head 'thrown backwards'—Desmond Morris gives an extended account of the latter motion in Gestures, but alas, does not discuss the simple nod. It is evident, however, that the distinction is ancient. Alan Boegehold ('Antigone Nodding, Unbowed') discusses two lines in Sophocles' Antigone, in which the heroine is arraigned before Creon for burying her brother Polynices, an act the king has expressly forbidden. The lines are translated by Jebb:
Creon. Thou—thou whose face is bent to earth—dost thou avow, or disavow, this deed?

Antigone. I avow it; I make no denial.
As Boegehold asks, why is Antigone's face 'bent to earth' if she is defiant about the act? He concludes that it is not—rather it is nodding (κατανεύειν) in grave assent: 'The Greek verb ανανεύω means to move the head up and back, a gesture of the head that says No. The Greek verb κατανεύω, to nod down, means to affirm, to say Yes.' The nod, in this case, is a defiance of positive law turned tyranny—a defiance by the invocation of natural law:
It was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.
Antigone's nod is a defiant and political yes. Since ancient times, the nod has been more than simply yes—it has been a powerful political instrument.


The Will of a King—a return to words.

As a trio, Wynken, Blynken and Nod sang a lullaby together—but Wynken and Nod have their own history, and they go back a long time, thick as thieves. The OED cites Samuel Palmer's Moral Essays (1710): 'A nod and a wink are very often treacherous and false'. They're still at it, as the web attests, particularly in redoubled form:
A blatantly racist tacit understanding between people of Anglo-Saxon extraction? A nod, nod, wink, wink!

Wal-Mart chooses to nod and wink some more with an expanded nod-wink campaign called Corporate War-Room or PR or corporate spin.

The pat-on-the-back, nod nod wink wink old boy network that's making Dick and George's business pals even fatter and richer than they already were
The OED also lists 'on the nod', referring to something obtained for free, or without discussion—ie. by tacit agreement with another. The nod, it seems, with or without the wink, means more than assent: it can mean the conspiratorial assent to something 'which is not openly admitted or authorized'. And it has the ring of power: not just any assent, but the fiat, the command, the granting of privilege.
Blair gives nod to nuclear review

Independent voters give Bush the nod over Gore, 56% to 47%

Senate Gives Nod to Immigration Guest Workers
These two nuances—power and secrecy—are bound up not just with the word nod, but with the concept of nodding itself. It goes back to the Latin. The root-word for nodding in Latin is nuere, but this is never found in its native state. Its chief alloys are nutare, its frequentative form; innuere and annuere, to nod towards; nutus, a nod; and numen, a nodding or something that nods. Consider the sense-developments. The first word came to mean 'to waver, be unsteady' (whence nutation), but also 'to command by a nod'—nutat ne loquar, 'he commands me not to speak' (Plautus). The second, innuere, 'to nod at, imply, insinuate', would be used in mediaeval legal documents in the gerundive form innuendo, and pass from there into English. The third form, annuere, would mean 'To give assent or approval by nodding, to nod assent to, to approve, favor, allow, grant. promise to do'. It is found on the Great Seal and dollar bill, totem objects of the American people: ANNUIT COEPTIS.

As this page explains, the motto was cooked up by Charles Thomson in 1782, from a prayer in Vergil, audacibus annue coeptis, 'favour [our] bold undertakings'. ANNUIT COEPTIS, however, is indicative, meaning 'He favours our undertakings'. The verb has a hidden subject, generally taken to be 'God' or 'Providence'.
The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: the Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.
Thus is the secret power of God invoked, just as it is by those in authority in support of their actions—a dangerous appeal to the concealed unknown. If Creon usurped the natural law, Antigone has usurped the positive. And it is not Creon in charge now, but Antigone: the man who stands above a Constitution, above the laws of men, with a direct view of the divine. It is Antigone whose authority is acquired 'on the nod'.

There remains the fifth form of the Latin root, numen. In Vergil it has already completed its evolution: 'nodding, intention, will, divine will, divinity'—quo numine laeso, 'by the harm of whose will' (Aeneid 1.8), quisquam numen Iunonis adorat, 'whomever the divinity of Juno adores' (1.48). In English we have the numinous, originally meaning the quality of divinity; Nathaniel Ward (1647) writes 'The Will of a King is very numinous; it hath a kinde of vast universality in it.' Since Rudolf Otto the word has acquired a psychological status, meaning one's experience of the awesome divine—'the numinous [numinosum] is thus felt as objective and outside the self' (Das Heilige 2.6)—or we might say, of the God or Providence that favours one's undertakings with a nod and a wink.


'Adam and his race are a dream of mortal mind, because Cain went to live in the Land of Nod, the land of dreams and illusions'—so wrote Mary Baker Eddy, deliberately ignoring her Hebrew lessons. Not just Cain, not just Homer: we have all been cast out of Eden. We seem to have settled in a place called Nod, but in fact we wander without end, like Calvero, asleep with a quavering faith, on a misty sea, seeing the world as we make it and not, despite everything, as it is—que toda la vida es sueño / y los sueños, sueños son. The nod with which we defy and assert power, hungry for pap, is secretive and illusory: it is just the same, after all, as the nod by which we wander, and drowse, and assent to all forces greater than ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the fascinating series of posts.

Concerning the gesture itself, and its signification: Bulgarians nod to express 'no' and shake their head to say 'yes', which is always useful to remember for anyone visiting Bulgaria. I recall reading some less reliable reports of other nations or tribes with a similarly flippant attitude towards these two gestures. No doubt someone researched this once and wrote it up somewhere.

John Cowan said...

Really? I had understood that the Bulgarians, like the Greeks, flip their heads backward, jerking their chins up, for "No". Indeed, Ivan Derzhanski told me once that he automatically switches head-gestures when switching from Bulgarian to Russian or English or another non-Balkan language. I found that pretty surprising.

In any event, the Greek head-gestures go back at least two millennia and a half; in the beginning of the Acharnians by Aristophanes, the hero Dikaiopolis exposes a bunch of phony Persians by asking them questions in Greek, which they claim not to speak, and then pointing out that they reply using Greek head-gestures rather than Persian ones.

Perhaps the worst confusion arises in cultures where a single nod of the head means not "Yes" but "Go on; I'm listening". This can confuse foreigners into thinking their proposal is being assented to when it is merely being considered.

In addition, I remember reading once that some group or other (sorry to be so vague) uses a head-rocking motion for "Yes", moving their heads alternately toward their shoulders.

Anonymous said...

Well, I haven't been to Bulgaria, but that's what I understood the gestures to be - both from printed sources and from communication with a few Bulgarians. One Bulgarian acquaintance told me that in the recent decades some cityfolk, especially young people, adopt the "Western" way of nodding and shaking head, and yet not all of them do; which makes it all even more confusing, I guess.

Now that you've planted a seed of doubt, I went in search of a more detailed description and found this short video, according to which "no" is indeed a full nod (including the movement down as well as up), but "yes", curiously, is expressed not by shaking your head but rather by bobbing it slightly left and right, without turning it, looking straight ahead. The description in this random article also seems to describe the same "yes" movement. That's the same as the head-rocking you speak of, I guess.