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The origin of ?swan song' - Clay Wilson

I can't leave readers (not to mention a fellow writer n you're welcome, Ed) hanging.

In last week's column I questioned the origin of the term "swan song." I used the phrase to refer to my next-to-last column before I move to Memphis, the one in which I said goodbye to Henry County.

But I also said that I don't know from whence the expression comes.

So I hopped onto the old faithful (as long as one has a working connection) Internet and looked it up. Sure enough, my digital friend did not disappoint me.

I have it from two sources (www.word-detective.com and www.wordorigins.org) that the actual phrase "swan song" entered the language in 1831, although neither site identifies who penned it.

A bit more Internet surfing n ahem, painstaking research n turned up "The Mavens' Word of the Day" (www.primapublishing.com), which asserts that it was the English writer Thomas Carlyle who coined the phrase in his 1831 "Sartor Resartus."

All three sites, however, note that the idea behind "swan song" is much older than Carlyle, extending back to such Greek philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. They say the Greeks believed the swan, which they thought (erroneously, according to word-detective.com) was mute for most of its life, burst into a beautiful song just before death.

While such English writers as Chaucer and Shakespeare alluded to the myth, Carlyle first used the phrase "swan song," according to The Mavens' page. He later used it figuratively to denote the final work of someone's life, the site says.

I certainly hope my swan song doesn't have the meaning Carlyle gave it.

I also hope it doesn't foreshadow the end of my career as a journalist. As I wrote last week, I haven't secured a job in Memphis yet.

I would like to get back into journalism, but that might not be possible immediately. I have a feeling I'm going to find myself working in a coffee shop or bookstore for a few months n if I'm lucky n until a position opens up at a Memphis newspaper.

But ultimately I want to work as a journalist again, because I think this job is so important.

"Your story is not yours to keep. You have to give it away. You have to use it to help somebody."

So said Stockbridge High School Principal Antonio Hurt once when I heard him speak at a local church. He said that at one point in his life he had been reluctant to share his story, which includes attaining a doctorate at the age of 29 and becoming one of Henry County's youngest principals.

But then, he said, an older, wiser person told him that his autobiography might inspire other young black males to turn away from the anger and negativity that often plague their culture toward a life of learning and achievement.

Knowing that, she said, Hurt has no right to keep his story to himself.

And that, I think, is the essence of journalism: the idea that there's a story in everyone (and everything), and we can all learn something from those stories if we'll just take the time to listen.

So that's it. That's my final column n for now. After last week's ran a reader encouraged me not to think of myself as a swan about to die, but rather as an ungainly, fuzzy duckling "who will shortly emerge ? (as a) fine swan ready to sail upon a sea of meaningful words."

I hope he's right. I have a feeling this swan won't stay mute for long.

Clay Wilson is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at cwilson@henryherald.com.