So the warriors were prepared for battle,
And the Turkish hosts approach Kossova.
In one of his lectures, Alan Treloar made a rare aside and picked up this word, transliterating it through a series of languages I can't remember (I think through the Cyrillic script languages - Russian, Serbian and all that); one to the next. Rather like the old game of Chinese Whispers, he traced its variations through to modern English, yielding its meaning as an enemy, as in the Serbian poem above.
Then he started in the same place in time and geographically, and traced this same word in a westerly direction through to Greek-Aryan-Germanic to English, and so we acquired one word with two opposite meanings; host as in enemy, and host as in friend; those who look after you when you come to their house.
Hey, what about that? Not two words accidentally the same, but the same word, transformed. In fact, through the Arab world, you can go to your "host" - your enemy, and he must offer you food and protection according to that custom. He is your host in both senses of the word simultaneously!
"Hostage" is similar. It was common in many cultures to give an enemy a daughter in marriage, or have a son live in an enemy court, to show good faith. Same derivation. Sadly, hostages these days are rarely given the privileges of the hostages of more ancient custom.
A book came out recently on gutenberg.org, dated 1892. It's entitled Villainage in England: Essays in English Mediaeval History. This book itself has a fascinating history... but stick to the point, Wright! OK?
The point is the spelling of "Villain". These days we have a meaning for that word which is "low scum". Someone who would stoop to any meanness and, well... villainy!
But Vinogradoff, the eminent Russian scholar who dared to lecture the English about English serfdom, was talking of people who worked the land but didn't own it; not wicked people, but "low". Simply because of class notions, "villain" acquired its modern meaning - a reprobate you wouldn't associate with for quids.
Historians since tried to get around this abuse of the poor landless peasant, the serf, by spelling it "villein." That's the way we spelt it at high school, so our Pythonesque Holy Grail characters slopping about in the roadside mud being scorned by knights of the realm could acquire a bit more dignity.
All this started with my finding the word "slut" in a nursery rhyme! I had a couple of other words with an interesting etymology, but why do that when googling "etymology" would tell that story so much better? All I'm doing is to connect my thoughts via a truly amazing genius I had the great good fortune to know personally.
I asked Alan to come back every year to lecture my Indian history students for as long as that was possible. I sat at the back of the theatre enjoying it more and more every time, taking in fresh insights I hadn't the nous to pick up earlier.
Sometimes it was the same lecture, because nothing in the research on that topic had changed. At others, fresh pages of neatly written script pointed to subtle or tectonic shifts in the philological research on a topic.
Some students loved it, especially the Distance Education students up in Armidale for Residential Schools. They were generally older than the Internals and realised they were getting a totally unexpected treat.
Others, sadly for them, thought it all a gigantic waste of their time. So be it.
I have one final story to share with you concerning Alan Treloar; one that deserves its own piece because of the extraordinary man it brings into the story, but I'll try to reduce it to a virtual footnote and move away. Just be aware that I do not use the word "extraordinary" lightly.
In the late 1970s, this man, who had nine million dedicated followers around the world, came to Armidale. That's yet another story, but suffice it to say now that he met me at the university and he came to my house for one or two meals. Once, he cooked, in my kitchen, a beautiful South Indian vegetarian meal for us - a party of about ten. Focus, focus! This isn't about food....
Scientist, philosopher, poet, writer. I wrote for his journal about mysticism, and have his books still. He was the most intelligent, serene man I ever knew.
One evening, I told him about Alan Treloar and that he was lecturing to my students the following day, and he expressed a desire to go to the lecture. Alan was fine with this. He read his lecture to the class in the same manner as always. I think the lecture was on the major Vedic texts and how they influenced Indian society from top to bottom.
Nitya sat with me and listened with complete absorption. At the end of it, he quietly congratulated Alan on its quality and they spoke for a little time; two great minds needing to exchange only a few words, as great minds do.
To me, Nitya quietly said as we left the lecture theatre:
"That is the second time only I have ever heard a lecture by a Sanskrit scholar who is not an Indian deliver a flawless lecture on Sanskrit and its society."
Whoever the other one was, some scholar at the University of Hawaii whose name I can't recall, must have been awfully good. And Sanskrit, I say again, was a sideshow for Alan.
Sometimes I wish I'd told Alan about that, but... you know what? I don't think it mattered in the least.