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.

21 comments on this post.
  1. Andrew:

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

  2. 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).

  3. 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!

  4. Yael:

    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).

  5. Barry Breen:

    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.

  6. Lee:

    Spaten Oktoberfest, Ur-Marzen

  7. Ed:

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

  8. 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

  9. Sam:

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

  10. katalin:

    Still looking for the proto-UR

  11. 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

  12. Lee Ann Throm:

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

  13. Hughe:

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

  14. Hughe:

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

  15. 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.

  16. Ken Kukec:

    Or “divine” — unless Andy Devine was the ur-God.

  17. 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.”)

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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?

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