Never [before] has the Cenotaph, in its 103 years of standing sentry on Whitehall, been “defended” on Armistice Day by a Port Vale fan supping a can of Stella Artois.
Mark Townsend, The Guardian, 11 November 2023
The Cenotaph stands in central London, at the point where Whitehall becomes Parliament Street, opposite the weird neo-Tudor western entrance to Richmond House, which is visible in the background of the image above. It’s the focus for commemoration ceremonies on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.
But the year 2023 has been a bit strange for the Cenotaph—first it was blown up by a thermobaric mortar-round in Sky Television’s political drama COBRA: Rebellion; then, in real life (as described in the quotation at the head of this post), it found itself being besieged by a group of people intent on “protecting” it from another a group of people who weren’t really anywhere near it and in any case had other things on their minds. The latter event (the real-life one) ultimately led to the sacking of the UK Home Secretary—a quite dramatic connection between that lager-sipping football fan and one of the Great Offices of State. It’s funny how things turn out, isn’t it?
The word cenotaph comes from Greek kenotaphion, which in turn derives from kenos, “empty”, and taphos, “tomb”. So it’s a tomb-like structure built in remembrance of a person (or persons) whose remains are elsewhere. The Cenotaph in London is a war memorial designed by Edwin Luytens, originally dedicated in 1920 to those from Britain and the British Empire who were killed in World War One. It has a twin in Hong Kong.
Other ceno- words in English don’t share an etymology with cenotaph. The geological era called the Cenozoic comes from Greek kainos, “new”, signifying the “new life” that replaced the extinct dinosaurs. And the ghastly supernatural cenobites that appear in Clive Barker’s inadvertently comic Hellraiser films take their name from Greek koinos, “common”—the original cenobites were members of religious orders who lived in communities, in contrast to anchorites, who lived alone.
To find more words relating to kenos we need to flick through the dictionary to the letter k. The noun from kenos is kenosis, “emptying”, which was imported unchanged into the English of Christian theology. Kenosis is the theory that, in becoming human, Christ renounced his divinity—emptied himself, in other words. Kenodoxy comes from kenos and doxa, “glory”—so it’s “empty glory”, which we’d more commonly call vainglory. The Greek alternative is so rare that the Oxford English Dictionary can find its citations only in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dictionaries. And a kenotron was a particular kind of thermionic valve containing a high vacuum, back in the days before solid state electronics. So not much of an etymological haul for kenos.
Taphos has been slightly more productive in English, producing at least one other word you might recognize—epitaph, which originally signified words written on a tomb. A cepotaph is a tomb in a garden, or a garden in which the ashes of the deceased are scattered. And a bibliotaph is a person who “buries” books—by keeping them under lock and key and refusing to let others see them. Taphophobia is a pathological fear of being buried alive, which (among other things) has given us Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial” (1844), William Tebb and Edward Vollum’s Premature Burial And How It May Be Prevented: With Special Reference To Trance, Catalepsy, And Other Forms Of Suspended Animation (1896) and the patented Safety Coffin. Taphophilia, marginally more cheerfully, designates an urge to visit and admire the graves of prominent people. Those who pursue this interest are taphophiles (sometimes more dismissively called “tombstone tourists”).
Finally, taphonomy is both a branch of forensic pathology, studying the decay of corpses, and a branch of palaeontology dealing with the process of fossilization.
And I hope you’ve enjoyed the scattering of linguistic fossils I’ve unearthed for you today.