Concert or Consort?

The words are brothers. ‘consort’ is an olde worlde form of the word ‘concert’; in former days it meant a programme of musical entertainment. Hence you have quaintly named early-music bands today who call themselves ‘The Consort of Music’; and ‘The Consort of Viols’ (punning on the word ‘consort’, which also means ‘to meet together’.

The musician Henry Lawes, friend of the poet John Milton, who himself was an accomplished musician and the son of an accomplished musician, wrote a piece he titled ‘A Consort for Voyces’.

The way we use the two words nowadays is more particular and rigorous than their former almost synonymous usages of the past. A ‘consort’ is a band – of musicians, or of people who have combined for activities which may be other than music; whereas a ‘concert’ is very definitely a set programme of musical works to be performed publicly.

The two words ‘consort’ and ‘concert’ share a basic idea of a ‘coming together’ of people or of things so as to make a unified entity or an entity which might be called a ‘set of things’.

Take the phrase ….‘I want you to make a concerted effort…’ – even when this is said to a single person there is a sense in it which means that the speaker is asking the hearer to ‘pull themselves together’ and bring to bear in unison all their faculties to get a job of work done.

‘Concertina’ is not just a musical instrument rarely heard in ‘concerts’ but it is a ‘squeeze-box’ wherein to play its notes one must press together the item; thus it works by way of a ‘coming-together’

A ‘consort’ is a person who ‘goes-together’ with another person and accompanies the other person; in public appearances or on romantic dates; or both.  To ‘consort’ with someone else is to ‘get together with them’ to be in their company a lot.  A ‘consortium’ is an association, usually today of business people who are seeking together – have come together indeed – for the purpose of undertaking a joint business venture together.

A ‘concert’ is thus also a bringing-together of musicians and of pieces of music to be played by them in such a way as that the whole thing – musicians and music chosen – hangs together as a loose or as a more or less formal unity.

This coming together emphasises the social nature of people; Aristotle defined human beings as ‘creatures who live together in a society’.   The Greek for ‘coming-together’, or ‘congregating’ is ‘synagogia’; which is the same word which Jewish worshipers use to name their churches – ‘Synagogues’.  Jewish churches got this name via its use for the term ‘meeting place’ and found in The Septuagint. The Septuagint is a translation into Greek made by Jewish scholars of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians term ‘The Old Testament’.  This translation was made around 200 – 300 AD; and it was made by Diaspora Jews for their fellows who had joined The Jewish Diaspora. This Jewish Diaspora was a general dispersal of Jews across the Mediterranean World from their Biblical homelands in Asia Minor. It took place over a course of several centuries at a time when Jewish homelands under the rule and administration of The Roman Empire.

Many of the Jewish families scattered abroad at this time, had after several generations lost a familiar use of Hebrew; which they had used almost exclusively as their spiritual lingua franca; and the appearance of The Septuagint, by it having translated their scriptures into Greek was a response in order to supply these scriptures in an alternative language; a language which these Diaspora Jews remained able to read and to use fluently

Why then Greek and not Latin when under a Roman administration?  It was because Greek was a second language of Roman Empire; it was commonly in use across the Empire in those areas of life not political and not legislative; in the arts widely, and in some Roman ‘unofficial’ life such as leisure activities. The cultured citizens of Rome spoke both Latin and Greek; they used their Latin for official business and their Greek as an everyday choice for leisure time activities.  Roman art in all its forms and formats had almost entirely been was founded upon the arts of Hellos as the Greeks called their ancestry.

‘Synagogia’ then, like the English ‘concert’ and ‘consort’, is another word which has variants and family derivatives in English.

The first syllable ‘syn’ is used in English words to indicate ‘a being together’: the English word ‘synonym’ for instance means ‘a word bearing the same meaning as another word” (i.e. a coming-together in meaning); the word ‘synchronise’ means ‘a coming together in time’ – ‘chronos’ meaning ‘time’ as in the word ‘chronometer’, a timepiece; or the in word ‘chronicle’ meaning ‘a day to day record of history’. ‘Synergy’ means ‘a joining together of energies’.

A solid fact to be drawn from all this discussion about words is that words and peoples’ vocabularies are ever-changing; are in a constantly fluid state; albeit that changes might be moving faster in particular areas of language than in others; or at particular times or in particular regions.  There are other conditionals too which bear on the state at any given moment of a language.  This constant change and fluidity means that language at bottom is never able to be exactly precise as a tool which we use to attempt to express our thoughts and feelings.  Further, each one of us as individuals has a fund of historical experience behind us; and this personal history of ours acts to condition and so ‘colour’ many of the words which we use. This colouration means that each of us in particular caries as our baggaged a vast amount of discrete connotations which bear upon certain ideas, thoughts, memories, feelings, which we hold and which are a part of our characters. Such colourations are not likely to connote in exactly the same way for us as they might for any other person; they might connote less or more personally and so forcefully, for us than for any other person taken at random for comparison.

There was a German woman, a lectrice at a college I attended, and with whom I was acquainted. I recall vividly how she responded when she was being complimented by a student for her skills in sewing. She had kindly mended a lad’s coat for him. The student had said to her’ You’re a good seamstress’.  The lectrice had been seriously taken aback, and had been offended by the lad’s use of the word ‘seamstress’ about her. It soon became clear that she had not been fully conversant in her command of English with the fairly rarely used word ‘seamstress’.  Of course she had associated it with the demeaning word ‘mistress’; and I believe she had understood ‘mistress’ in that particular sense in which it means a kind of ‘chattel’ a woman as being a thing at the broad disposal of a man.

The German lectrice thus had mistaken the intention and so had utterly missed the compliment to her in the lad’s words; and she had believed that she was being treated like a useful artefact, in a subservient relation; and even possibly arose here some indignation at being thought a sexual plaything?

This fierce antagonism in her arose in part perhaps because of the nature of the word ‘mistress’ itself; which she had mistook the word ‘seamstress’. ‘Mistress’ itself is a word of some equivocal meaning; and equivocal because of the history of its changes of meaning and because of its diversity of meaning in its usage?  ‘Mistress’ in English is a title which commonly schoolchildren use to refer to their female class teacher – she is their form mistress; or maybe their headmistress. ‘Mistress’ is also a woman in charge of a household: ‘a house mistress’ or in former days ‘an inn mistress’ – who ran an alehouse. Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly was such a woman; and without necessarily having any of the connotations associated with the notoriety of a woman being a married man’s concubine; being his ‘mistress’.

‘Mistress’ in the abstract might mean a woman who is accomplished in her chosen field of work or study; as in a phrase such as ‘She is mistress of all she surveys’ and as one might call a male artist and painter ‘An Old Master’. In our present age the word ‘mistress’ is becoming very quickly a word out of favour with us. Our liberal sexual mores demand we treat female partners of married men not as ‘supplements’ to his sexual enjoyment but as having an equal claim in the relationship.  The term ‘extra-marital relationship’ itself smells somewhat musty these days. Only in a historical context does the word ‘mistress’ when meant as referring to a sexual partner sound acceptable to many of us these days – otherwise it is when used today considered to be an old-fashioned term which stigmatises, persecutes, demeans women.

Even in the schoolroom, but not for sexual relations reasons, the words ‘headteacher’ and ‘teacher’ – gender-neutral terms – are used by schools and by education authorities so as to avoid sexual differentiations in titles and in professional positions.

Nowadays – that is an old-fashioned word – ‘nowadays’ – not many people use that word these days – similarly we have no longer ‘gunman’ on detective shows and on news bulletins on shootings, but instead the word ‘shooter’ is now used, and it has crept in from abroad – from the USA.  We have today quite ubiquitously women in the arts called ‘actors’ and ‘sculptors’; and in cafes women are ‘waiters’ and so on. The once exclusively masculine terms are now being applied across the board to these and to similar roles; as if in some way feminine equality with men of opportunity and choice was in fact to be desired in the format of women slavishly seeking after what men have always had and desired; thus labelling women as being surrogate men.

The French exclamation is; ‘vive la’difference’ and it celebrates the natural physical, physiological, and psychological distinctions which separate men and women as human beings. It is an exclamation not welcome in the company of those who would have women be aspirant to be like men.

Some years ago I went to a public meeting held by a women’s protest group. The meeting was taken up mostly with a fierce argument about the roles of nature and of nurture concerning bringing up children as boys and/or girls.  The activists held fiercely that girl children were being forced into their gender roles by convention and by parental expectations, by their presumptions and by their adherence to a social norm; whereas for some non-aligned parents present at the meeting their girl children they claimed they had found to gravitate instinctively, naturally, towards ‘girly’ things.

In such ways and by such social changes and challenges the sets of once-established idea contained in the words ‘female’  ‘woman’ ; ‘girl’; ‘she’, and so on; and by the same token the established senses in the words ‘male’ ‘man’ ‘boy’ ‘he’ and so on; have been and in the present continue to be something of a linguistic battlefield.  What is at stake is the normal social outlooks upon the genders of humankind in our daily lives.

In the daily usage, or avoidance, of gender-specific words very often words generally are having to be picked more consciously and more carefully in these and in other tendentious areas.  For many users of language this represents difficult and maybe confused choices to be made.   Persons who ‘wrongly’ choose in such ways and because of such confusions, cause themselves to be looked upon pejoratively as unfit persons; or else their usage of these ‘wrong’ choices carries with it an inherent moral blame and assumes a benighted outlook.

The same basic principles hold true in public life right now for other contemporary issues; such as race, disability, sexual orientation; cultural clashes; and for a few other ‘bogey’ topics and issues whereupon one has to be careful where one treads.

This consciously managed usage and non-usage of particular sets of terms and words in one’s language has become a very potent, perhaps one of the most potent, tools in the tote-bag of the people who carry on their social engineering campaigns.  These are campaigns carried out knowingly and deliberately, usually by pressure groups, by lobbyists, by government, by commercial interests; by all those who support the respective issues and concerns these lobbyists prefer. Some of us who take up these preferred words and terms may be sympathetic to their issues; or else we may be feeling guilty, or unsafe and insecure, uncertain, about not making use of them.

The question is not whether these causes of pressure groups etc are right or wrong good or bad; the issue is that one needs to be aware of this management handling, this deliberate manipulation of language so as to further a political or a social cause which is near to, and/or sometimes an anathema to, a pressure group’s heart.

Thus a study of words, of their changing usage, of their origins, of their analogues, and their synonyms; of their attempts at proximation to what we mean and to what we want to say; allows an awareness thereby to be created in us about other people’s takes on the nuances of any word or sets of words they use and advocate.  To be able to get a grasp on language in these ways enables a person to see more clearly what is going on around about; and so allows a person to be able to think through their own position and so to attempt towards a more objective vision of things in general.

                         “Words make a man: speak let me see thee” – Ben Jonson



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