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Trouble and Avail

So. Your Humble Blogger was listening to Maoz Tzur today (only twelve tent-peg-sharpening days until Chanukah!) and noticed something odd about the English.

I mean, first of all, the English is a hundred and fifty years old, and sounds it. The words are evidently by Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil, and to nobody’s surprise it isn’t so much a translation as a new song to the same tune. Of course, the Rabbis in question were quite forward-thinking in translating hymns into English at all, rather than the German that most of the Reform synagogues used, and I believe that the English version we use today is derived from a German version that is derived from the Hebrew, rather than being derived from the Hebrew itself. Anyway, here are their lyrics:

Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

The thys become yours and so on, but other than that, those lyrics are the ones I learned. So. Gentle Readers, other than the general tushery of the faux-archaic language, does anything come to mind?

Here’s what jumped out at me as I was listening: the use of avail in a positive sense. That the Divine did, in fact, avail us. The Divine availed us good and plenty. Our own strength availed us naught and were to no avail, but the Divine availed us just fine.

I don’t know if any Gentle Readers use the word avail at all, but I doubt you will be surprised to learn that YHB uses it with some frequency, in both the avail you naught and the to no avail phrases. Both are negative. It’s possible, that something will be of little avail, or will avail you little, but they are still essentially negative—I can’t imagine saying that coming up with a good excuse would be of some avail, or would avail you well. No, avail is one of those things that exists only in the negative.

Well, after writing that and TSOR, I was reminded that I do avail myself of things on occasion; that’s a positive use but is necessarily reflexive. I availed myself of the internet, for instance, and came up with a positive usage, but I couldn’t say that the internet availed me, or that it availed me well, or that it was of good avail. So the word is used reflexively in a positive sense, or non-reflexively in a negative sense, but not non-reflexively positively. That’s even stranger. Particularly with the dearth of reflexive verbs in English anyway, of course. Is what’s going on that avail is just a relic of an archaic word, and that it is only used in peculiar idioms, and so we shouldn’t expect it to make any sense? And therefore Rabbis Jastrow and Gottheil were just using it to engage in tushery (and to rhyme with assailed and failed)? Or what?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I feel like I see it in the phrase "avail oneself of".


So a key question is whether Andre the Giant's arm could avail someone else, or only God's similarly sized arm. If the usage is more acceptable with God availing us (or God's arm, but synecdoche applies, and is a pretty good word to trot out on no sleep), then it's presumably semantically reflexive if not syntactically so in recognition of God's presence in each of us.


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