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.
OK, 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.