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The Case for Etymology

The other day, in my Classics class, we were talking about why etymology is (or isn’t) important and/or useful.

We had been assigned to read one of Plato’s dialogues between Sophocles and Cratylus about why we name things what we name them and is all of that really useful if it isn’t accurate? (Considering that the Greeks thought the womb moved around the body and that was what caused hysteria, I find this more than a little ironic.)

I do think etymology is important. It tells us our history, if nothing else. The two are, to me, inextricably intertwined. You can’t not know the history of some things once you start exploring their etymology, because, sometimes, knowing just what the constituents of a word mean does not make sense. “Apologize”, rather literally translated, means “to speak away from”. It kind of makes sense—you could say you’re speaking away from a wrong you’ve committed, but that sounds awkward in English. And then there’s “hysteria”, which I’ve already explained.

A lot of language, or at least a lot of the words we use today, are at least a little descriptive. Take the word “descriptive”, itself: it’s the adjectival form of “the act of writing down”. Maybe we don’t write down all descriptions, but we do note things in our descriptions. Sometimes, our words are more figurative than literal, but a lot of it is pretty obvious in the end of it. I think we can all agree that when we coin new words, we generally do it based on what we know about the thing we’re naming—what we can use our five senses to find out about it. A lot of scientific terminology basically holds this system as a sort of supreme force because it is so very accurate. When you’re working in a field where accuracy is important, it’s good to have an accurate word-creating system.

We also get words from the noises that things make. “Buzz”, “boom”, “meow”, “woof”, and other such onomatopoeia tend to have similar words across language. The words for the noises that cats and dogs make are just as recognizable in Japanese as they are in English, and the two languages can hardly be considered related. (One theory of language speculates that the first words originated out of the imitation of animal noises, so claims a Discover! Kids magazine I had as a little one.)

At the same time, the foundations of a lot of our language is a bit arbitrary. There was a recent study that provided some evidence that there may be some sort of proto-Indo-European language, from whence at least some of the words many different languages used today may descend. A lot of these “proto words” are concepts that do go back at least as long as spoken language, and many, beyond that. “Mother” or “Mom” is, for example, one of these words. I’ve heard it postulated that this derives from the way babies move their lips in order to nurse. Not really having seen much of this, myself, I couldn’t really say one way or the other. Aside from concepts that have existed since (or before) humans were around, though, there are a lot of words that different civilizations had different words for. I mean, “love” sounds really different from language to language. Languages that are closely related within language families often have similar-sounding words for similar concepts, but if you look even within Indo-European languages, the phrase “I love you” sounds incredibly different. Even writing systems aren’t portable within language families. Then, there are languages that have heavily imported words from other languages (English is one such language), and it’s often clear that these words sound out of place, or at least make the language confusing to understand. (Spelling variance, anyone?) But it is sort of interesting to see where those words come from, too; again, it tells us about history—who came together and went their separate ways when.

We dismiss a lot of things by saying that they’re “just words”, but they’re so much more: they’re pieces of history. They tell us what we knew and when, and maybe, as we watch the coining of new words, they might give us hints as to where we’re going.


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