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I was shocked , although should not have been, as to how few of my students knew of Pete Seeger. After all Pete Seeger who died on January 27 this year was 94 and my students are only 12 or 13.  Pete Seeger collector of folk songs, singer, song-writer, was an activist for peace and equality.Slate magazine addressed the complexity involved in Seeger’s song-writing:

He wrote none of them and he wrote all of them. Pete Seeger did not invent “We Shall Overcome,” but he made it his and made it everyone else’s. He never claimed he invented it, and he never diminished the people who had, even if their names were by that point mostly lost to history. Pete Seeger borrowed music while honoring it and honored it by borrowing it. In America that is pretty close to a miracle.’

 Throughout the year we examine heroes or upstanders. What does it take for someone to go against prevailing forces? What does it take for someone to stand up for others? Who are examples of people we know today and from the past that oppose injustice, that speak up for the oppressed? How can injustice and inequality be overcome?

So we read and listened to Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome” particularly noting his spoken-sung comment:

 “The most important verse is the one they wrote down in Montgomery, Alabama . They said, “We are not afraid”. And the young people taught everybody else a lesson. Oh we old people who have learned how to compromise and learned how to take it easy and people like to get along and leave things as they were, the young people taught us all a lesson”

The iconic photo by James Kareles reveals the intense desire to ‘overcome’ injustice. Marchers travelled the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demand voting rights. This was the third attempt to hold this march as others were disrupted by threats of violence. This attempt, resulted in 25,000 participants assembling at Montgomery on March 25, 1965. ‘The march garnered national attention for its cause and helped push President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act on August 7, 1965.’

Overcome

We examined the word <overcome>. What does it mean? How is it built? What are the morphemes? What are it’s roots? Then how does that then help us think about this word, the song We shall Overcome and the man Pete Seeger?

We saw that ‘overcome‘ in Seeger’s song is a compound word, a verb, made of two free base elements <over+come> both elements operating as single words in Old English from the etymons ‘ofer’ and ‘cuman’ as indeed they continue to do so as ‘over’ and ‘come’ in present day English. ‘Overcome’ was compounded in O.E. with two senses: that of reaching and overtaking as well as the sense of prevailing, vanquishing. Late in the O.E period this broadened to include ‘being overwhelmed’ or ‘rendering helpless’ in terms of mental or chemical force. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes the cognates in other Germanic languages. The concept of ‘surmounting’ was not part of the O.E. word’s denotation, this sense occurred later in 1200s. Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) citation in the O.E.D. is a particularly inspiring example of its use: ‘He..that is slain, is Overcome, but not Conquered’. 

Not a prefix, but a frequent compound forming base element

We were surprised to discover that the OED states that <over-> is a prefix attaching to <come >.Yet we wondered about this and dared to question the esteemed O.E.D: how can <over> be a prefix when it exists as a word? Surely it merely compounds, a lot! We found 357 instances of ‘over’ occurring as the initial free base element in compound words when using Word Searcher (we ruled out ‘overt’, different base and root and the word ‘overly’ -no compound here just <over+ly>). Perhaps dictionaries assume frequency must transform a base element to a prefix.

Some of the words we liked from this list of  compounds involving ‘over’  were ‘oversee’ as a verb, ‘overseer’ as a noun but then almost its opposite with the nominal ‘oversight’. This contradictory meaning can be seen in another pair of words with ‘over ‘; the expression to ‘look over’ and ‘overlook’. We could have become caught up in the hunt for more of these words such as ‘cleave’, ‘bolt’, ‘trim’, ‘weather’– consider the opposite meanings found in each! Such words are often referred to as contranyms or the grandiose term enantioseme. However, my favourite term for such words is ‘Janus words’. Consider the Roman god Janus of the two faces, guardian of portals doors and gates with one face looking one direction, the other the in the opposite direction!! And of course it’s Janus’s two faces that make the name ‘January’ so apt for the first month of the year – one face looking to what was, the other to what will be!!

Over as the second element in a compound word:

There were far fewer instances of <over> occurring as the second element in words, 19 in total listed in Word Searcher. We found ‘handover’, sleepover’, ‘hangover ‘ . Hangover was first attested in 1894 as that remaining, ‘something left from before’. It was not until 1902 that it broadened to include the sense of the effect of too much alcohol, as in ‘something left over from the night before’. Surprisingly ‘hungover’ was far later, not attested until 1950. In these words there was no suggestion that ‘over’ was a suffix.

Overcome once was a noun

We discovered that ‘overcome’s’ past use as a noun is now rare:That which is left over; a surplus, an excess. Once ‘overcome’ was the ‘chorus or refrain of a song; a favourite, hackneyed, or overused phrase; a catchphrase. Now rare. We saw that ‘overcome’ as a noun once was ‘something that overwhelms or prostrates a person; a sudden attack or shock. Now regarded as obsolete- although I loved this example of its use from 1821 the OED :J. Galt Ann. Parish xviii. 174 Mrs Balwhidder thought that I had met with an o’ercome, and was very uneasy. Overcome too once was ‘an outcome, a result’ and ‘ a crossing, a voyage across the sea’ Now too obsolete.

Overcome as adjective

We discovered too how overcome can be used adjectively as ‘defeated or conquered’ as in the example from Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd:‘There is a dog outside,’ murmured the overcome traveller. ‘Where is he gone? He helped me.’

Active and passive use

When we realized that overcome could mean both ‘vanquishing, prevailing’ as well as ‘feeling overwhelmed’, I thought this was yet another example of a ‘Janus’ word or contranym but slowly realized, in discussion with Old Grouch, that the notion of conquering, prevailing or the opposite was dependant on whether the verb was used in the active or passive sense.

Converting words of O.E. origin to words of Latinate origin

I realized as we examined the lyrics to ‘We Shall Overcome’ that all words bar ‘peace’ and ‘afraid’ were of Old English origin. So we converted the text to contain as much as possible words of Latin origin..we kept ‘shall’ but played around with the pronouns: ‘we’ and ‘I’. One group, despite the Latinate ‘afraid’ which had surplanted  ‘afeared’ from O.E., decided to substitute this with another synonym of Latin roots. Read the difference. Below students read the lyrics of the original and show the substitutions in progress:

 

 

 

 

The girls below explain their substitutions and discuss the effect.

 

‘We shall overcome’. converted:

People shall vanquish

People shall vanquish

People shall vanquish, at a future period.

Oh, profound in my cardiovascular organ,

Individuals do accept

People shall vanquish at a future period.

People shall amble embraced in embrace

People shall amble embraced in embrace

People shall amble embraced in embrace, in a future period.

Oh, profound in the individual’s cardiovascular organ,

The individual is convinced

People shall vanquish in a future era

People shall reside in peace

People shall reside in peace

People shall reside in peace, in a future generation

Oh, profound in the individual’s cardiovascular organ,

The individual is convinced

People shall vanquish in a future era

People are not intimidated

People are not intimidated

people are not intimidated, in this present period.

Oh, profound in the individual’s cardiovascular organ,

The individual is convinced

People shall vanquish in a future era

The entire universe in all directions

The entire universe in all directions

The entire universe in all directions, in the future

Oh, profound in the individual’s cardiovascular organ,

The individual is convinced,

People shall vanquish in a future era.

Amir had asked me “and why are we doing this?” and you too, dear reader, may well be wondering the same thing. Here’s why:

  • It gives students the ‘mouth feel’ of words from Old English roots and the words from Latin roots.
  • It awakens students to the difference in register- Latinate words are often more formal, ‘more scientific’ as Shania said.
  • It gives students practice just looking for the roots of words some enter via France but are Latinate in origin, some directly from Latin. O.E. words are often more direct but as such can be poetic and powerful.
  • It develops an awareness of synonyms and the subtle nuances between them.
  • It awakens students to some of many linguistic influences in English.  Seeger himself is aware of this. Listen to All Mixed Up

And why this song, this focus on Pete Seeger? Simply, to take to heart the message “Don’t give up! We shall overcome” and because Pete Seeger reminds us what it is to live a principled life. When testifying before the House of Un-American Activities in 1955 led by the infamous Joseph McCarthy, Seeger replied:

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

We loved reading that Seeger lived by the motto engraved on his banjo, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

The class and I also enjoyed reading The Rolling Stone article: 7 Reasons Pete Seeger was a Badass , I was moved (overcome!) reading point #7:

‘7. He never stopped fighting for his ideals:In a 2006 New Yorker profile, Alec Wilkinson quoted a friend who saw the 84-year-old Seeger standing by the side of the highway as the Iraq war ramped up, holding up a sign for passing traffic: “He’s just standing out there in the cold and the sleet like a scarecrow. I go a little bit down the road, so that I can turn and come back, and when I get him in view again, this solitary and elderly figure, I see that what he’s written on the sign is ‘Peace.'”

When Amy Goodman interviewed Pete Seeger in August last year, she asked him to sing We Shall Overcome which he did, saying:
“Yes, that is something the human race needs to be reminded of. Don’t give up.”

I hope my students will join other individuals like Pete Seeger to find a sense of integrity and too become part of the swell of people who have the courage to overcome injustice.

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