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.