Word of the Day: PILGRIM

Word of the Day: PILGRIM

“Pilgrim,” says Tom Doniphon to Ranse Stoddard, “YOU didn’t kill Liberty Valance. I did.”

Everybody who’s ever done an impersonation of John Wayne, from Rich Little to John Byner (the best, to my ear) to me when I was twelve years old, has hooked one thumb in his belt, waved with his free hand, and said something with “PILGRIM” in it, and “heading out” or “moving on” or something. We’re so used to it, and we are so unused to the idea that a screenplay might make some subtle literary sense, that we are apt to miss how ironic, poignant, and fitting it is, in context.

Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) has come out west with his law degree and his ideals, and seeks to bring to rough-edged Wyoming the blessings of law, learning, and civilization. He is like a late reincarnation of the Pilgrim Fathers, who sailed across the Atlantic and brought the same gifts with them to New England — and they are gifts which the director, John Ford, views with some uneasiness, for Stoddard is not the moral hero of the movie; the half-civilized Tom Doniphon is. Stoddard represents a new world of clean living, schools, railroads, trade, and towns that are safe for women and children; but also a bureaucratic world, one full of talk, a somehow constrained world. The final scene, with the aged Senator Stoddard and his wife riding on a train from Wyoming back to Washington, suggests that the woman Halley whom both men loved (Vera Miles, who could go from warmth to ice with a single glance), married the wrong man.

There’s a fundamental difference between the PILGRIM who comes to bring a way of life that wasn’t there before, and the PILGRIM who goes far away to visit a place where something HAS happened, to bring BACK memories of what he has seen, or some token, something revered or sacred. The former can be — not necessarily is, but can be — moved by rejection of the place where he has left, or by disdain for the place to which he has come. The latter is moved by gratitude.

The word PILGRIM comes into English through the Romance languages, and has to do with your destination if you went on the pilgrimage route in the Middle Ages. A ROMEO, says Dante, is someone who has gone to the holy places in ROME. A PALMIERO, he says — English PALMER — has gone to the Holy Land, and brought back PALM branches, such as we received today at Mass. (If your surname is PALMER, one of your ancestors did that.) If you go to the shrine of Saint James in Galicia, you travel overland, and that means you cross many fields, which is what PEREGRINATIO means in Latin: PER + AGER, FIELD, turned into a verbal noun. Latin PEREGRINUS becomes Italian PELLEGRINO (liquid R turning to liquid L; cf. Greek ASTER, Latin STELLA, STAR), French PELLERIN, English PILGRIM.

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