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The Lexicon - Last

One word, weekly. Found in a book. Shared with you.

Word: Last

Definition: (n) a form (as of metal or plastic) which is shaped like the human foot and over which a shoe is shaped or repaired.

Origin: ME fr. OE læste, fr. last footprint; akin to L lira furrow, track; related to Learn (same origin)

Source: Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree -

'Well, I must call with en the first thing to-morrow. And I'll empt my pocket o' this last too, if you don't mind, Mrs. Dewy.' He drew forth a last, and placed it on a table at his elbow. The eyes of three or four followed it.

Commentary: Reading Thomas Hardy is like submerging yourself in a cool pond, all at once and full of bewilderment. Everything about it is foreign, and much like traveling abroad, it requires the utmost attention. To relax could mean losing the thread altogether, which is exactly what happened to me as I read the section where this short paragraph occurs.

A few chapters before, I had been told Mr. Penny (the above speaker) is a boot- and shoe-maker with rounded shoulders and little shining spectacles. Alas, that information did not help me as I read his words about emptying his pocket. I assumed, as perhaps you did, too, that he was referring to some final object he needed to remove from his jacket. But then, we are given that article 'a last' and the pronoun it and the description of its place upon the table, and the world stops.

For me, it meant reading back over the last few paragraphs. What did I miss? What is this "last" item he removes? No clue. It seems important, especially with those three or four eyes following it. So, to the dictionary, even as I doubted there could possibly be some definition of this utterly common word that I did not know.

Much humility ensued. What would have been obvious to Mr. Penny's listeners, an object as familiar as their own feet, was completely new to me. And then, just like that, it became the perfect symbol for Hardy's work.

This little story also introduced me to the profession of a tranter (one that does odd jobs of transporting or peddling, usually with a horse and cart), and it taught me that a dumbledore is a type of bumblebee. More than vocabulary lessons, though, it showed me a time and place when neighbors were also as familiar as feet, easily recognizable as their voice halloo-ed from over a hill or their boots stamped off snow at a doorstep. In every way, this book harkens back to a former way of doing life, in intimate community.

The last that Mr. Penny pulls out belonged originally to a single man, and it is as recognizable to that craftsman as it would have been to the man himself: After that man's death, the last was used to make shoes for his son, altering it as needed to accommodate the son's growing bunion and his accident with the horse. And though this son's daughter has no such damage, Mr. Penny declares that her boot and his are more similar than not. He can tell a man (or woman) by their feet. Such is the value of attention paid. Such is a thing that lasts.

Until it doesn't.

For now we don't have a shoemaker. We hardly attend to our own feet or our neighbors for that matter. We pluck a box off a shelf and hope our bunion or high arches or wide heel box will fit. We endure the pain of a rubbing spot, the blister that may form, the tightness in the toe, and we have collectively forgotten that someone used to make us shoes, individual and unique. Formed for us with care, shaped around our own last.


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