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.


This is what happens when you don’t use the scientific method properly

A study recently published by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand has some… unfortunately obvious results, some might say.

The tl;dr version of the study is as follows: sex and booze make humans happiest in terms of three axes: pleasure, meaning, and engagement. Seriously, sex ranks in as the number one activity that makes humans happy, and drinking alcohol comes in second. This does make pretty good sense on a basic level, though. You have only to look at popular culture and the media to corroborate this supposed “revelation”, and science lends its own credence. Humans, after all, are huge fans of instant gratification—the part of the brain that enables long-term planning and weighing risk versus reward doesn’t fully develop until most people are in their mid-twenties! (This, as many of my friends half-joke-half-assert, is why people should not be allowed to marry or make other such life-changing, long-term decisions until they’re older than about 25.)

Now, a couple things concern me about this study: first and foremost, what are the demographics, here? Were they even reported? Looking at the compiled lists of the top ten activities that (allegedly) make humans happiest and the bottom ten, it seems skewed toward the culturally mainstream interests of those between the ages of about 16 and 35. (To be fair, though, nobody likes being sick, and recovering is rarely a pleasant journey, so at least the least happy activity makes sense.) I looked around for a little bit, and I could find no information on the demographics, and that’s a little concerning. If you’re going to generalize on what makes humans happiest, I’d hope that you’d at least have age and gender proportional examples! Given the proportions of those who text and/or use Facebook—the main avenues of reporting in this study—I’d say that this could use a little work.

Next, I happened to see this article from the Stir that talks about how sad it is that more people don’t want to be parents. First, I think this is kind of a load of crock. In terms of people commenting and essentially saying “Parenthood sucks”—it seems like these are the same people who also don’t like going to lecture or cleaning or much of anything that involves actual work; they’re probably not representative of the majority of people, and they’re probably commenting mindlessly. And kids, God bless ‘em, are a ton of work. Now, from what I’ve seen in real life, they can also be incredibly rewarding, but they tend to come with the most extreme of ups and downs. Popular media does not help, and often paints child rearing as something that is all pain and very little to no reward whatsoever for just about every reason imaginable. Compounding that, people like to make themselves feel better by examining the misfortunes of others. A childless person will look at some inaccurate representation in media portraying the incredibly vast majority of families as dysfunctional beyond help and think, “Well, at least it’s not me. And why would I want that, anyway?”

The author of the Stir article thinks that this supposed distaste for parenting is unfortunate, and, on some levels, I agree with her. Why shouldn’t we want to share our lives with these little miracles? Actually, there are plenty of reasons, so, hey, if people don’t want and/or aren’t ready to be having kids, the absolute dead last thing they should be doing is, well, having them. Not good for the parent, not good for the kid, not good for anyone.

And really, when you look at it, considering that there are at least twenty items on this list, being ranked in the top twenty-five percent (raising children comes in fifth) really isn’t all that bad. I suppose the point of the Stir article could be more (and very implicitly) that you keep on “needing” more alcohol and sex to be happy, and that threshold for how many children it takes to be happy is, in a lot of cases, far and away lower. To be honest, I also don’t understand what the gripe is about volunteering coming before having children. To a lot of people, volunteering strikes the correct balance of caring for others and caring for one’s self. In addition, those who volunteer a lot of their time likely don’t have a whole lot of it left to be rearing kids, which does take away from the time one is able to spend simply caring for one’s self. I just fail to see how volunteering ranking higher means that we don’t respect our kids. (Saying this about the ranking of sex, though, and, far more obviously, the booze, I can understand, but even then, if you use both in moderation, that alone does not mean you disrespect children.) Side note: I also wonder which category (volunteering or raising children) fostering kids falls under, because that could totally skew these results, too.

The point here is that it’s all too easy to extrapolate something that probably isn’t there (or at least, isn’t entirely accurate) from the little data that there is while missing out on the portion of the data that would be really telling.

It’s kind of funny—it’s really hard to construct a well-done survey. It’s a lot of effort that a lot of people don’t want to put forth, and thus, it generally winds up with a gigantic confirmation bias. Funny how “paid work”—which I’m assuming is what this research was for those conducting the research—does manage to rank in the bottom ten. Take a minute to let that sink in. And for goodness’ sake, next time, please be a little more accurate, people!