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shameless pleading






Before dirt.

Dear Word Detective: Newsweek and the NY Times have both recently used the word “ur-text” in articles with no indication of its meaning. Example: “Principals had ordered Payne’s books and DVD’s by the boxload, mostly her ur-text, ‘A Framework for Understanding Poverty,’ . . .” What does it mean? — Kate Simpson.

Well, what do we mean when we say, “What does it mean?” Do we mean “What is the literal meaning of the word?” Or do we mean the meta-meaning, the cultural significance, of “ur”? And what, after all, is “meaning”? “Meaning” is subjective, of course, but “meaning” is “meaningless,” so to speak, without collective agreement on its objective value, which is almost always less than five bucks.

ur08.pngOK, onward. What “ur” means, in a cultural sense, is that you have stumbled over a line of cultural demarcation, the one separating folks who nod knowingly at buzzwords like “heuristic” and “semiotic” and “trope” and “ur,” and the rest of us schlubs who have to look this stuff up. “Ur” is, at least when it’s used in the mass media, the sound of a writer showing off, and I, for one, find it intensely annoying. Academics, of course, are free to torture each other with this stuff (knock yourselves out, please), but the rest of us just wanna read the paper before the parakeet needs it.

What “ur” means in a literal sense, used as a prefix (ur-text, ur-cow, ur-toaster, etc.), is “original or earliest,” with the sense that the ur-thingy presages or underlies what comes later. “Ur” is a German prefix found in several German terms imported into English and used primarily in scholarly and scientific contexts, e.g., “Ursprache” (“sprache” meaning “speech”) or proto-language, and “Urheimat” (“homeland”), the place of origin of a people or language. One of the earliest uses of “ur” in English was in the early 20th century in “ur-Hamlet,” the long-lost 16th century play on which Shakespeare supposedly based his version. The use of “urtext” in English dates to the 1930s (“In these volumes … we have the nearest thing possible in Chopin’s case to an Urtext,” Times (London) Literary Supplement, 1932), and subsequent use has usually carried the implication that the “urtext” is either a “purer” form than later versions or is the clearest statement of the author’s thesis or vision before the derivative sequels and DVD deals cluttered things up. Kinda like when James Bond was still Sean Connery.

Speaking of early things, by the way, there is (or was) another “Ur,” an ancient city in Mesopotamia thought by some to be the birthplace of Abraham. The remains of Ur, an important archaeological site, can be found today near Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad, Iraq.

27 comments to Ur

  • Andrew

    Nice article, but giving us the meaning of “Ur”, as in the one in Iraq, would have been nice.
    Hint, hint.

    • Better late than never, I suppose.
      As far as I remember, ‘ur’ or ‘uru’ simply means ‘city’ – in Sumerian, I believe (yes, I’m on the internet and can easily check, but eh, it’s late). For example, the name of ‘Jerusalem’ is probably ultimately detived from Uru Shalem, ‘city of Shalem’ (said Shalem was one of the local gods).

  • Cal

    I’m running about a year late here but it’s worth noting that in addition to pedants, science fiction fans would have run across ur- in the Thomas Covenant series (where I picked up the word as a child).

    • Linda H.

      And two years after you, I just looked up “the meaning of the prefix ‘ur’ ” in Google because I am reading Thomas Covenant and came across the prefix!

      • Ken M

        I follow 4 years later, googling “ur as a prefix” also because of reading the Thomas Covenant series. I also first read the books as a child. I’ve re-read them several times over the years and am now in my 40s. Donaldson flashes a vast vocabulary in his writing. I think it’s likely he used “ur” as a prefix because it has multiple meanings that arguably could apply to Thomas Covenant as “ur-lord”, maybe even shifting from one meaning to another as Covenant changes
        over the course of the three trilogies. It seems consistent with Donaldson’s style and depth.

        • Lord Lish

          My grandmother was half Hungarian half Slav. In Hungary Úr means Sir, Urak is plural – sirs, gentlemen.
          Some slavic masculine names have suffix ‘oš’, like Miloš, Njegoš and so on. One of them being Uroš.
          Today in Slovenia and Serbia name Uroš is quite popular but in the middle ages Uroš was reserved only for the elite where the Serbian Kings bore that name as a title. According to their history Ur was taken from the neighboring Hungarians and suffix oš was added.
          On another note, Archibal Sayce mentions Ur Nina in Sumer:
          ‘Ur Nina sar Shirpurla’
          Lord Nina the ruller of Shirpurla?

  • I’m reading a book by Douglas R. Hofstadter, Le Ton Beau de Marot, about language, translation and anything else he could think of, in which he uses ur to denote the original – as in ur-dog and ur-joke. So there can be an ur-anything. You can use the little critter in front of just about anything if you are trying to impress people who will be impressed by such things.

  • Lee

    Spaten Oktoberfest, Ur-Marzen

  • Ed

    Silly! The word Ur declared were Abraham or Abram was from. The city of or Ur of Chalde.

  • ruth housman

    UR: on a whim I looked to see what is written about UR this ltr combination. In English we pronounce this YOU ARE and we have URLs on the internet as in YOU ARE EL & EL is GOD It seems these bits of letters combinations are not random as in UR of the Chaldees, Abraham and the ONE GOD it is like DNA

  • Sam

    Thanks for this. Was used in a article and had no idea. Ridiculous! Just say “original.”

    • G. Adams

      “Ur-” and “original” should not be used interchangeably. The Ur-Hamlet, which Shakespeare may have known and developed into his play, may not have been the original Hamlet, which Shakespeare may not have known. “Original” is absolute; “ur-” usually refers to a specific predecessor.

  • katalin

    Still looking for the proto-UR

  • Ali

    Worth pointing out that in Thomas Covenant the term isn’t used in the sense of original. Rather in the sense, as I read it anyway, of ‘similar but not the same’. For example Thomas as Ur-lord is not the original lord (nor is Berek) but rather an individual who is like a lord but not. Equally the ur-viles are not the original but the descendant species

  • What does it indicate, if it is a prefix to a name, as Ur Rikki?

  • Hughe

    Is the ancient city of Ur then the ur-Ur? Hughe ;-)

  • Hughe

    You should forgive those academics for over using ur. After all, to ur is human. To forgive is devine.
    Hughe :-)

  • Ken Kukec

    Ur, heuristic, semiotic, trope — I allot myself one use per year. Try to pick my spots, make ’em tell. Rest of the time, I go with more demotic prose. (Damn, there goes my annual use of “demotic.”)

  • Emily Fox

    David Duchovny uses the term Ur-cow in his novel “Holy Cow” and I had no idea what he could have meant. This explanation is quite helpful. Thanks.

  • CDubbs247

    lol Also on here because of Thomas Covenant. First time through the series i did audio books but now I’m reading it on on my kindle. Listening I thought it was “err-Lord” based on context I thought it was a fantasy prefix for “honorary”

    Thanks for the the in depth clarification.

  • Peter B

    Being Danish, my problem was the opposite of that of the rest of the comments. To me, the ur- prefix is my native language, but I was trying to find the corresponding English language prefix. Dictionaries suggest non-prefixes like “primordial”, but that was not satisfactory.
    I think the correct translation of “ur-” is “proto-“, as suggested by the examples in the original article, and that was what brought me to this site as one of the few hits having both prefixes in the same text.
    So the connection between ur- and proto- seems to be not well known, and that might have been the cause of over-using the Germanic ur- in English language texts?

    • Julian M

      I think most writers will know the prefix proto- and agree that it is very similar to ur-. However, in my opinion, there are a couple reasons their use is different:

      1. At least how it’s used in English, my feeling is that ur- has the sense of denoting a singular thing. The ur-text. The ur-cow. (Even if this is an abstract thing.) Whereas proto- is often used to refer to a class of things. A proto-language. A proto-cow. And while you can get definite objects too like Proto-Indo-European, others seem weird to me: “the proto-text” sounds like an incomplete template which was used to create the text, not some original text of the same standing which underlies the new one.

      2. The fact that ur- is not a common English prefix makes it immediately clear that the author is inventing the word on the spot. Whereas with a prefix like proto-, it may be less clear to the reader whether they are expected to have heard this word before (so maybe it has some not-entirely-compositional meaning that they’re unaware of). …Of course, this relies on a reader who has heard the ur- prefix, but gaining clarity at the price of pretentious obscurity is not all that weird for writers…

  • Steph

    A writer in Nature described George Soros as an “ur-capitalist” this week:
    I was completely baffled until I found your helpful explanation. Maybe Nature isn’t mass media, but I agree that this word is annoying.

  • Jennifer Anne Hollamby

    Looking up the meaning of Ur in relation to its use in a paper on Strindberg’s Dramatic Expressionism (Carl Dahlstrom – 1930).
    In the paper it states ‘Ur-ishness is an emphasis on the spiritual quality of man not simply as free from the artifice of convention, the tags of civilisation, but as something enduring before and beyond the quirks of written codes and public opinion. It points to the unattached cosmic spirit that gives man his essential and enduring worth.’
    l think the take-away here is that, in this sense, ‘Ur’ means the fundamental human essence.

  • April A.

    Came looking for a definition because of an article in Vanity Fair magazine (December 2019). It’s an article about private jets and states in part, “Jackie Kennedy’s robin’s-egg-blue paint job was the ur-customization,…”
    Ur-customization??? So now, here I am. Thank you, Word Detective. :)

  • Katalin

    This was quite interesting, especially since Hungarian is my mother tongue and I have been doing a lot of research into the Sumerian language because I have a “bizarre” theory that these two language isolates are somehow related; that they may have a common “urheimat,” homeland. (Besides ur, I have found many other words common to these two languages.) In Hungarian “Ur” means lord, and it is also used to refer to God and, and married women at least in the past had to refer to their husbands as my “uram.” A bit chauvinistic, if you ask me. In addition, I was reading up on whether the earth was one landmass at one time, and I came across the word “Urkontinent.” This was the name the German geophysicist Alfred Wegener dubbed the earth before it cleaved into seven continents.

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