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.

5 thoughts on “Cenotaph”

  1. Question

    If I only like to visit cemeteries but just to see ordinary dead people’s tombstones, do I qualify?

    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”).

    1. Good point. I hadn’t appreciated how many people are interested in funerary inscriptions and monuments generally. There seems to be quite a community. So, yes, no reason not to call them taphophiles, too, since it’s a label some of them use for themselves.

      1. I read that Edgar Allan Poe short story by accident when I was about 11. It still haunts me. uuggghhhh

        However, I recently had a fabulous guided tour of Highgate cemetery, so maybe I could become a taphophile.
        Interestingly, at the coffin of Robert Liston, the guide regaled us with the story of how he was the first person to administer anaesthesia in the UK…..
        …. it will not surprise you to learn that I felt moved to share the Scottish version of the history of UK anaesthesia with her :)))))

        1. Ah, the elusive Dr William Scott, who never quite revealed what the surgery was for which he “exhibited ether” in Dumfries.

  2. My hometown is adjacent to the city of Colma, California. Colma hosts most of the cemetaries on the San Francisco peninsula. The departed waaay outnumber the living in that town, by an order of magnitude. I used to walk through several of said cemetaries to admire some of the utterly magnificent tombs and mausoleums.

    A frequent stop was the grave of Wyatt Earp. (Who has a nice headstone by the way.)

    About twenty years ago in one out of the way plot with a small above ground tomb with a pond, surrounded by a metal fence all around, I discovered a hold out population of endangered California red legged frogs. (Exterpated from all the surrounding areas by habitat loss and the introduction of ravenous bullfrogs.) I was equal parts delighted and amazed to have found them. The whole plot was about five meters square.

    Since lately I’ve found the need to get my affairs in order I’ve decided to go the “urn on the mantleplace” route myself. With maybe a on-the-sly scattering at Filoli, a world class garden center.

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