Monday, May 19, 2008

Deriving My Advocates Nuts

As a matter of habit, the very first thing I do when I hear a new word is to look it up in the dictionary, check its etymology at THE ONLINE ETYMOLOGY DICTIONARY, and then cross-reference its origins through various lexica at THE PERSEUS PROJECT, if it has Greek or Latin roots. As nerdy as it may sound, this is not only fun, but incredibly useful in remembering the definition, deeper meanings, and syntactical potential for any word. You should bookmark both sites right now. NOW.

However, when a major literary figure mocks this approach, one ought to really think about one's attachment to said approach. Such is the case with the 20th century's greatest writer: G.K. Chesterton. According to Gilbert:
"The people who trust to derivations are always wrong: for they ignore the life and adventures of a word, and all that it has done since it was born. People of that sort would say that every man who lives in a villa is a villain. They would say that being chivalrous is the same as being horsey."
An example I thought of this morning on my drive to work is that not all members of cults are cultured.

Interestingly enough, the etymology of the word 'etymology' reveals that it implies quite the opposite of Mr. Chesterton's understanding. from Gk. etymologia, from etymon "true sense" (neut. of etymos "true," related to eteos "true") + logos "word." In classical times, of meanings; later, of histories. Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium. Thus, looking to the etymology will help you get to the 'true sense of the word'.

But turning to the etymology of 'etymology' to prove the worth of either etymology or philology is a lame argument. Kind of a self-fulfilling progeny. In reality, I think G.K., in fashion typical to his style, is over exaggerating his dislike for the reliance on etymology in order to emphasize another, more minor point: that he doesn't like editors screwing with the titles of his books. CLICK HERE FOR CONTEXT.

So then, I would still say that etymology is very useful, and can even enliven the word in ways greater than by mere conventional use. Perhaps this BEGS THE QUESTION of proscriptive vs. descriptive language analysis, but we'll save that for another day.

For your bar-fact enjoyment, I submit to you three of my favorite contentiously contented etymologies:

n. a coarse, dark, slightly sour bread made of unbolted rye.

Originally an abusive nickname for a stupid person, from pumpern "to break wind" + Nickel "goblin, lout, rascal, demon, Devil," from proper name Niklaus. Pumpernickel was said to be so hard to digest, that it even gave the Devil a difficult time in the digestive process. So, it literally means 'Devil's fart'. Alternatively, the other etymology of the word is not from German, but from French into German. Apparently, a french nobleman was served the dark rye bread and exclaimed: "C'est bon pour Nicole!" His horse, being named Nicol, was the only one this Frenchman saw fit to dine on such hard, inedible bread. This was then returned to Germany as Pumpernickel.

n. Murderer, generally somewhat professional; esp. one who murders a prominent figure.

During the time of the Crusades, members of the Ismā'īlī sect of Shia Muslims engaged people to terrorize their Christian enemies by performing murders as a religious duty. These acts were carried out under the influence of hashish, and so the killers became known as hashshashin, meaning eaters or smokers of hashish. Hashshashin evolved into the word assassin.

n. Pear-shaped fruit with dark green, leathery skin, a large stony seed, and greenish-yellow edible pulp. Also the topical American tree on which this fruit grows.

Originally the Aztecs called this fruit ahucatl after their word for testicle. This is may be partly due to the fruit's resemblance to a testicle, but also because it was supposedly believed to be an aphrodisiac. To the Spaniards ahucatl sounded like avocado (=advocate, Spanish), and so the fruit came to Europe, via Spain, under that name. Avocado pears are also sometimes called Alligator pears. The etymology of this is far more obvious; the skin of these fruits is dark green, thick, leathery, and knobbly, rather like that of an alligator, not to mention the paronomasial qualities between Avocado and Alligator.

For further knowledge: the translational error from 'ahucatl' to 'avocado' and 'pumpernickel' from 'bon pour Nicol' is called folk etymology. This process frequently occurs when users of one language, in virtue of their inability to pronounce certain sounds in other languages, are forced to represent those sounds with similar but completely unrelated sounds from their own. While this is sometimes very unscientific, it can certainly provide for some of the more colorful derivations of words. And I find myself contented with this.


Ignoramus said...

I just love etymologies, but somehow it had never occurred to me to look up the etymology of "etymology".

Aquinas often points out that where a name came from and what the name means now are two different things, but he also likes to bring in etymologies whenever they fit. At their best, they offer a glimpse into the philosophy of the common man--like when you find out that "matter" is connected with "mother", it tells you not only something about matter but also something about mothers.

And I did bookmark those links. Thanks much.

The Vitruvian Duck said...

Oh, oh, please point out where Aquinas says such. If you don't have it right on the top of your head, please keep me in mind if you come across it again.

There's a lot packed into your statement about etymologies and the common man. This is very intriguing, especially since it's usually philologists of classical languages (i.e. not common guys) that utilize etymologies the most.

I've always liked the mater/matter connection, even more so as my overdue wife is now lumbering around the house. On the other hand, she feels that it's a stretch--Mark my words, though: it's more substantial than thinking of such things in a formal way.