The Lost Word and the Bear

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Patrick Dey

Editor's Note: This article contains profanity. I felt that editing the profanity out would defeat the purpose of the article. 

This is a bit of a strange time to compare a bear to something else. If you’ve missed it, recently women online started to ask the question: which would rather encounter, if you were stuck in the woods, a man or a bear? I don’t want to get into this, because it’s beyond the point of this essay, but a lot… and I mean a lot of women would rather deal with a bear. The reason I bring it up is because many of these women will respond by saying: “I would rather deal with the bear, because [insert reason]… whereas if I had to deal with a m*n, I can expect [insert experience]…” They will deliberate redact a letter from the word “man” or “men.” This stems from a problem in algorithms, where it will censor or remove a post or comment as “derogatory” or “hate speech” because they said something negative in relation to the word “man.” So to circumnavigate the Al Gore Rhythm, they spell it “m*n.”

This phenomenon is actually starting to affect our language, even spoken language. Alligator Rhythms censor a lot of material based on what is written or said, even in benign commentary. For instance, saying “dead” or “died,” which may upset the All Gather In Them, people write or say “unalive(d).” Now young people are starting to say this in everyday speech, and even students write this in school essays. In fact, because we fear calling out these algorithms, we have started to come up with alternative epithets for “algorithm,” because we can be censored for call it out, and so people are now starting to say “Al Gore Rhythm” et al.

Wouldn’t it just be weird if we lost the words “dead” or “died” because of this? Or if we lose the word “algorithm,” or future people look back and wonder if this “Al Gore” guy was some sort of tyrant with an ability to dance, or perhaps “algorithm” was some sort of demon we feared and had to watch what we say around it. This isn’t the first time such has happened. Let’s go back to the bear.

Did you know that we lost the original word for “bear” in English? Seriously. It is assessed that the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root word for the animal was something like “*h2ŕ̥tḱos” (pronounced sort of like ar-tu-kos). From a part of the PIE root, we get the Greek ἄρκτος arktos, where we get words like “arctic,” because that was a place associated with bears. From another part, we also get the Latin ursus, like the constellation Ursa Major or the “Big Dipper.” But we don’t have anything like this in English. Celtic has the word “*arto,” and Welsh has “arth,” which are the root words for “Arthur.” But we do not have this in Anglo-Saxon, nor do we know the exact word that would have been derived from the PIE root for bear. It is totally lost.

It is believed that Anglo-Saxons were so superstitious of this word, believing that by saying it would summon the creature. So, they used the Old English word beran, meaning “the brown one.” It is not uncommon that people would believe that saying a name would summon that thing, nor that we would use nicknames to avoid using that name, nor that we would lose that word as a result.

The Tetragrammaton is a great example. The Hebrew name of God is יהוה YHVH. But this is consonants, and we don’t know the vowels that would have been used with it. Modern Hebrew approximates the name as Yahweh. Jehovah is the Latin approximation of what YHVH probably sounded like. The Greek name is Ιαω Iao, and has been interpreted as the vowels that should be inserted into YHVH. But such is conjectural. We cannot know with any certainty. We lost the exact pronunciation of this name of God because it was so sacred that to speak it became taboo. In fact, the name was so sacred, that if a book, scroll, or any text is found that has this name in it, but it has not been determined whether or not the it is worth preserving or may be heresy, and therefore should be destroyed, then it is kept in a genizah, a storehouse of texts, until it can be assessed. Later, using these letters יהוה was deemed too sacred to write, and so a substitute was created instead: Tetragrammaton, Greek for “the four letters.” This is how we lost the pronunciation of the name of God.

This is actually more common than one might expect. We actually do this all the tiem. Do you have a friend who went through a bad breakup or divorce, and they refused to say the name of their ex? So they start to say “she who must not be named” or “he we do not speak of.” We all know who they are talking about, but we roll with it, because we agree in our little circle of friends that it is now taboo to say “Michelle” or “Jared” and now we use a long epithet to refer to them. Or another example: we don’t say, “we are having prolific unprotected sex,” and instead we say, “we are working on having a child.” We come up with euphemisms all the time for things we don’t want to say the actual word for.

In a way, we may regard the root of the phenomenon of why a word will not and should not be used has something to do with what Edmund Burke calls “the sublime.” This is not “sublime” in the way we use it today, as something that is beautiful or delightful, but rather something that is compelling us to destruction. It has a great power, a sacredness that is beyond utility or adoration, and is an existential threat to our being. It has an allure of wonder and fascination, while simultaneously being something that is feared and dreaded. Hence the phrase “to fear of God,” where it is a virtue to fear the divinity of the majestic throne of God. And this is how many women feel about m*n, or Anglo-Saxons felt about bears, or Israelites felt about the true name of God, or how your buddy feels about their ex. They are admired, loved, feared, and hated all in the same conscious moment.

We have something like this in Freemasonry: the Lost Word of a Master Mason.

In the Master Mason Degree, the Master’s Word is lost, because it could not be communicated after the death of Grand Master Hiram Abiff. So a substitute word is created to be used instead. Now, the Word is “recovered” (so to speak) in the Royal Arch. I was intrigued when I was told that I should join the York Rite because there the Lost Word is recovered, and it was a serious let-down when I went through the degree. I would have preferred that the Word was never recovered. It would have maintained the same sublime mystery that the true name of God holds, or how the original name for bear instills fear.

And that is what is ironic: that the recovered word, in its etymological history, is in fact a lost word. If you have been through the Royal Arch, good for you. If you have not, do not let anyone try to lure you into another Masonic body just to get “further light,” especially about the recovery of the Word. I will admit, the Royal Arch is a phenomenal degree, and worth being inducted into, but the recovery of the Word should not be why you do it.

Certainly, many have speculated upon why the Substitute Word was chosen. If you know the word, you know how to look it up in Albert Mackey’s Encyclopædia. And if you’ve been through the Royal Arch, you know the explanation given for how the Grand Omnific Word is formed and communicated, which is its own interesting exercise. One curious speculation was given by Henry P. H. Bromwell in his rite of Free and Accepted Architects, wherein he claims that the Grand Omnific Word is a combination of the names given in the Royal Arch, the names of the ruffians, and the syllables of the Substitute Word. These are all speculation, worthy of as much attention as any other conjecture, but they are all interesting because they circle around the same principle: the sublime, that which is alluring in its glory and deadly in its destruction — like Freud’s principle of the Death Drive.

Three divine names. Three murders’ names. Three syllables of God’s name. Three syllables of exclamation in the face of death and rot. Yes, the Substitute Word is a sublime word, meant only to be whispered in fear of its power. And the Grand Omnific Word, meant to only be communicated by three people, and then not all at the same time. And even if there never was a Royal Arch Degree, if there never was a Grand Omnific Word, and there was only ever the Master Mason Degree and the Word was forever lost, then that Lost Word would hold the same terrifying power. We can’t say it, because we were so terrified of saying it that we lost it.

The sacredness of words is immense, and, in fact, can have the opposite effect. I am thinking of the fact that French has way more profanities than English. This is because many words that pertain to the sacred or religion are turned into swear words in French, and it is even worse in Quebec French. There is a fun song in Quebecois called Osti de crisse de tabarnak avec paroles which on a superficial level of translating into English seems like a song about religion and sacred things. Words like saint, crisse (Christ), tabarnak (tabernacle), viarge (Virgin [Mary]), et al, because of their sacred etymology, are easily rendered into profanities. We have specimens like this in English, e.g. “Jesus Christ!” or “goddamn!” Because of how these words are turned into profanities, a whole song is composed of varying forms of the word “fuck” in French profanity. But this has the same effect: these words are so abhorrent that they are taboo to say, like “bear.” It is no different than a word that is so sacred and holy that it is taboo to say it, like the true name of God, than a word that is so sacred and holy that it is disgusting to say it, like “fuck.”

I don’t know how Freemasonry got the whole concept of a Lost Word or how the Grand Omnific Word came to be. Where in the transition from operative to speculative Masonry did these emerge? It really does not matter. What matters is that these words are not unlike a bear: they instill fear in us, and so we forgot what the original name was and had to create a substitute, or we refuse to say it above a whisper, or we cannot say it in the same breath.

A few years ago, a fellow occultist questioned my faith as a Christian and my occult practices. They asked me: “Why should I fear God?” And I responded: “Because you should show some goddamn respect.” Words hold power, and I don’t think we fear the Lost Word, or its substitute, or the Grand Omnific Word enough.


Patrick M. Dey is a Past Master of Nevada Lodge No. 4 in the ghost town of Nevadaville, Colorado, and currently serves as their Secretary, and is also a Past Master of Research Lodge of Colorado. He is a Past High Priest of Keystone Chapter No. 8, Past Illustrious Master of Hiram Council No. 7, Past Commander of Flatirons Commandery No. 7. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister). He is the Editor of the Rocky Mountain Mason magazine, serves on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Colorado’s Library and Museum Association, and is the Deputy Grand Bartender of the Grand Lodge of Colorado (an ad hoc, joke position he is very proud to hold). He holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, and works in the field of architecture in Denver, where he resides with wife and son.

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