The shape of water? — it has none, despite the title of that 2017 reptilian sci-fi film (or the unrelated 1994 novel by Andrea Camilleri, "La forma dell’acqua"). Water is the chameleon of the inorganic world. Like those mutable reptiles I fostered as a kid, feeding them pet-store mealy worms in their habitat between my bedroom window and screen and watching them proudly puff out their dewlaps and change color to match their perch, water shifts its form to that of its container.
I’m one of those containers, and so are you. Nearly 70 percent of each of us is water; it was even more than that when we were born. About the same percentage of the earth’s surface is covered by the life-sustaining fluid, which likewise was more when the earth herself was born, entirely shrouded by dark waters, as Genesis depicts, until her third day. NASA scientists search for water as the sure sign of the potential for life on other planets.
No wonder the ancients regarded it, along with earth (Latin terra, as in TERRain), air (aer, source of AERial), fire (ignis, which gives us IGNeous and IGNite), and the immutable cosmic ETHER (aether, like matters ETHEReal), as one of the five basic elements making up the universe. The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales in fact theorized that water was the one prime substance from which all else is made. The Greek word for water, hudor, is source of English HYDRate/HYDRaulic/HYDRoplane and related to the Romans’ word for "sweat," sudor, the water our bodies in eXUDe.
The Latin water word, aqua, gives us AQUatic, AQUarium, AQUeduct (a water conDUCTor, from ducere/ductum, "to lead"), AQUifer, and, via a circuitous routing through French, seWEr, a conduit for flowing water. "Whiskey" derives from Gaelic uisge beatha, a creative borrowing from Latin aqua vitae, both phrases meaning "water of life." The stone AQUaMARine is so called for its blue-green hue, the color of mare/the sea.
Romans called the Mediterranean mare nostrum, "our sea," as their empire at its greatest extent completely surrounded it. At one time the ancients envisioned a vast body of water they called Oceanus/OCEAN, encircling all the earth’s continents and mythologized as one of the primordial gods known as Titans. Son of Uranus/Heaven and Ge/(Mother) Earth (as in GEography/GEology), Oceanus was in turn, by his sister-wife Tethys, father of the Potamoi, 3,000 sons who became gods of the earth’s rivers (hippoPOTAMus means literally "river-horse"), as well as the Oceanids, 3,000 water nymphs who similarly presided over and resided in the earth’s FOUNTains (Lat. fons/fontis), lakes (lacus, related to LAGoon), and streams (rivus, source of RIVULet, deRIVe, to "stream down from," and even RIVAL, in origin one with whom you shared use of a stream or, in later usage, someone in competition for a romantic interest).
The Romans’ word for river was flumen, which meant literally water that "flows," from the verb fluere/fluctum. English deRIVatives include FLUid, conFLUence (a point at which things flow "together," as in CONnect, "to weave together"), efFLUent (with the Lat. prefix ex-/ef-, meaning something that flows "out"/EXits), and inFLUence (with Lat. in-, some force that flows "into/onto" you). An afFLUENT person is one toward (ad-/af-) whom resources and opportunity have flowed; something superFLUous flows above and beyond (Lat. super-, Greek hyper-) what is needed — like the SUPERsizing McDonald’s foisted on us years ago.
Rome itself, like Apalachicola, was deliberately founded on the banks of a river, the Tiber, a resource essential to both towns’ settlers for transport and as a source of fresh water. The Tiber’s chief deity was Tiberinus, one of the Potamoi. Legend credited him with aiding the Trojan prince Aeneas upon his arrival in Italy and, centuries later, with rescuing the abandoned infants Romulus and Remus and entrusting them to the care of a she-wolf, who nursed them in place of her own cubs.
But the Tiber, like all bodies of water, could bring harm as well as good. Accordingly Tiberinus, "Father Tiber" as he was sometimes called, was worshipped every year at a festival on Dec. 8. Likewise the sea-god Neptune, Roman counterpart to the Greek Poseidon, was honored and placated at the Neptunalia in July by worshippers hoping to profit from the Mediterranean’s bounty and avoid its wrath. Neptune was lord not only of the sea, but of the power of the earth’s waters, of flooding, and earthquake. Jupiter/Zeus too was a weather god, lord of the sky, of lightning, gatherer of clouds — the "Thunderer" and "Bringer of Rain" the Romans called him in this aspect, praying to avert both drought and flood. Aeolus was god of windstorms, imagined by Vergil as wild horses confined in their stalls beneath the sea, roaring ferociously to escape and wreak destruction — like Michael, who lately galloped madly onto our Panhandle.
The ancients wisely revered and feared the force of nature; they were subject, as we are today, to the mutability of climate, but, unlike too many of us, they by no means denied it. The Great Flood and the legend of the lost island of Atlantis, its total submergence known first from Plato, share one reality in common: that we are subject to water’s determination to shape itself, to the formidable might of rising rivers and seas.
As you next sip at your glass of sweet water, "watch what feeds you run dangerous," as the poet Geffrey Davis cautions, "the Biblical possibility of nurture rising into a final rage." We have the capability to escape being cast "into the waves" (the meaning of inUNDation from Lat. unda/wave), if we can but hold back the rising tide of ignorance, the enticing temptation to view news that displeases us as "fake," and the brutish denial of the validity of science (whose Latin source means "knowing," not merely conjecture) that plunged the post-Roman western world into its last, centuries-long Dark Age.
— Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.