On Etymology and Etymon-ology

What is (an) etymology? Let’s start by looking at the Greek roots.

“Etymology” comes from the Greek “etymon,” which means “true sense,” and “logos,” which means a whole host of things including “word.” Therefore, an etymology must be the true meaning of a word.

In fact this is obviously wrong. If someone asks you for, say, the etymology of “love,” and you tell him or her that love is a relation formed by intense feelings of affection, etc., you have misunderstood the question. The correct answer is that “love” comes from Old English “lufu,” which itself is from Proto-Germanic “*lubo,” which is from Proto-Indo-European “*leubh,” which meant, basically, “to love.” An etymology is a sort of history of a word, tracing its component morphemes back as far as the record will allow. An etymology is not the true meaning of a word, because the meanings of words change over time. Using an etymology to determine a word’s true meaning is like reading a history book on ancient farming techniques in order to learn how to farm. It may give you clues, and if farming had changed a lot more than it has over the years it might tell you most or all of what you needed to know, but there’s certainly no guarantee that it would.

Using etymology to determine a word’s meaning rather than its history is not uncommon, however. I’ll refer to it as etymon-ology; trying to get at a word’s etymon through its etymology. For example, in Chapter 2 of “The Future of Nostalgia,” Svetlana Boym writes, “The modern opposition between tradition and revolution is treacherous.  Tradition means both delivery—handing down or passing on a doctrine—and surrender or betrayal. Traduttore, traditore, translator, traitor.” Can “tradition” mean “surrender or betrayal”? Not according to Mirriam-Webster. It’s true that “tradition” comes from the Latin “traditio,” as does “treason,” but learning this etymology cannot possibly tell us anything about the meaning of “tradition” in modern English.

Condemning etymon-ology does not necessarily mean condemning the use to which Nietzsche puts etymology in On the Genealogy of Morals; for example, he points out the similarity between German “Schulden” (debts) and “Schuld” (guilt), and argues that they are connected not only etymologically but also conceptually. In this case the argument Nietzsche is making is a historical one: he is trying to trace the descent of certain ethical ideas, and etymology can be an appropriate historical record for changes in ideas.

Even here, though, etymological evidence alone cannot suffice to prove a certain evolution of ideas. For example, the English words “vision,” “wit,” and “wise” all come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, “*weid-,” which meant both “to know” and “to see.” We could hypothesize from this that our linguistic ancestors conceived of knowing and seeing as very similar activities, or even that they drew no distinction between the two. (Perhaps some of that has survived in us—after all, we sometimes say “I can see that” to mean “I know.”) But on the other hand, in modern (albeit slangy) English we can also use “I dig” to mean “I understand,” and “digs” to mean “lodgings,” and this is not evidence that we conceive of understanding or inhabiting as similar to digging. Perhaps generations from now “dig” will have replaced “understand” entirely; we would not then want our linguistic descendants to conclude that we drew no distinction between digging and understanding.

My point here is just that sometimes an etymological connection can imply a conceptual connection, and sometimes not. When we want to find or define the meaning of a word, etymology can be only an approximate guide. An etymology is a history, not an instruction manual.

Questions for commenters: Can you think of any egregious examples of etymology being used to find the meaning of a word?

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


3 Responses to “On Etymology and Etymon-ology”

  1. Tons of names of ethnic groups are like that. In Romanian, there is a word for Germans nemț, which is from a Slavic word (like Polish nemcy, I believe), which derives from a Slavic word that means mute – which the Slavs gave the Germanic tribes when they met them for the first time and couldn’t understand them. Similarly, many European peoples – including the Welsh, Walloons, and Wallachs (aka Vlax, or Vlachs, or Romanians) – have the same ultimate genetic origin (see here for details). In Danish, the word survives as “vælsk” and means “Italian, French, southern” – something slightly similar (the Walloons are French, and the Romanians are “southern” in that they derive from the same Latin culture as southern Europe), but ultimately a fairly different meaning.

  2. mothstache Says:

    Agriculture, viewed through its modern forms, is science, technology, in upward progress. Listening in on the word might tell you how they farmed, which isn’t all that helpful because how we farm is better.

    We’d probably agree that love has less to do with progress. Listening in on the word now and the word then just give us different “perspectives” or even perhaps totally different “concepts” that are linked by some kind of obscure continuity, a continuity itself not conceived historically and not thought through in its relation to those individual meanings. One love for the courts, one love for Bob Marley, one love for us, and any relation between the words is totally beside the point, since we are decided to think these concepts as historically indifferent to each other.

    But what if there were a word which, far from being of indifference to its derivations, was the sole source of their endurance; and which, far from being outstripped by progress, was progressively forgotten in its essence?

  3. Wilfredo García Conejo de la Mothstache Says:


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