Every now and then many of us notice things we've never noticed before--often things that have been within range of our eyesight--but, apparently, not our consciousness--for a long, long time. Little things. Big things. Very big things.
A year or so ago I noticed a house on a nearby street--a house that had clearly been there for many decades, a house I'd never "seen" before even though I'd walked and driven by it for decades. (Why we don't notice such things is beyond both me and the scope of this little reflection today.)
Among the little things are words. Every now and then some word will pop up like a piece of bread from a toaster and cry, "Notice me!" It happened today with a word I've "known" for more than sixty years, I'm sure. But a word I've just never thought about.
Early this morning I was reading a book to review--and came across a sentence something like this one: The place was teeming with pets.
Teeming. We all use it all the time. The Twilight film was teeming with teens. The playground was teeming with children. The river was teeming with piranha. And on and on.
But what does the word really mean? And where did it come from?
When I got home a little while ago, I checked the OED and found that the word originally meant the bringing forth of children. And even very early it was used metaphorically.
One of the examples is from Othello (4.1), a moment when Othello himself is barking at Desdemona; moments earlier he struck her.
O devil, devil!
If that the earth could teem with woman's tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
Out of my sight!
The word teem (or team!) can also mean pregnant (and teemless means barren), fertile--our more common meaning today. One citation is from Dickens' Barnaby Rudge: The house-tops teemed with people. (And I wonder: Is Teem soda some kind of fertility drug?)
There are numerous older, odder meanings, too, of teem and its forms 1. to belong to, 2. to swear (as in court--to God I teem), 3. to attach one's self to another, (3) to acclaim as lord, to offer or dedicate to God, (4) to proceed to, (5) to lead. The adjective teem can mean empty
And there are numerous others I'm too lazy to record here.
Our current, common use of teeming as abounding, swarming, crowded dates back nearly three hundred years--to 1715: Odd tales which heretofore Did so amuse the teeming throng.
Teemingly and teemingness are listed--I don't think I've ever read or heard either one.
There are two meanings for teemer: One who (or that which) gives birth; one who empties or unloads. (I sense confusion: Ralph the cabbie drove the teemer to the hospital--then, a teemer himself, helped her out of the vehicle.)
Teemful can mean fruitful, productive--or full to the top. (Is the glass not empty? Or teemful?)
Oh, and the word preceding all these teems: tee-hole, which is the name of the hole at the entrance to a beehive. I would have thought it would be what's left on the ground after someone tees off?)
And the word following all the teemings? Teen. But a definition I've never heard of: Harm inflicted or suffered; injury, hurt, mischief; damage. Obs. It can also mean irritation or vexation. Or grief, woe, pain, physical suffering. Wonder if any of the OED staffers had teenage children? And did those staffers smile when they worked on this word? I hope so.
Teen is also the name (obsolete) of a disease of hawks--a disease that makes them pant, get heavy, and lose their breath when they fly. How liberating to know that teen actually is a disease! My mother certainly thought so, especially between the years 1957-1963.