Friday, 7 November 2008

on etymology

Recently I saw November Theatre's The Black Rider (created by Tom Waits, Robert Wilson, and William Burroughs), but I'm not going to talk about that (well, ok: it was awesome). I'm going to talk about something I read in the program:

While conventional plays are fascinating and complex pieces of art, it is easy to forget on viewing them that the word "theatre" has its roots in the verb "to behold".

True - θεασθαι "to behold". θέᾱτρον was "place for seeing, esp.for dramatic representation, theatre" (maybe related to zen.) And it certainly is easy to forget this, since most people probably didn't know it in the first place. And there's no reason why they should. Etymology is cool, of course, but knowledge of etymology is completely unnecessary for using a language. What's necessary is not what words used to mean, but what words mean now.

The author of this program is using etymology to make a point about art, not about language, so maybe it's unfair of me to use it as an example. But it's an opportunity to discuss something I have not discussed on this blog yet: the etymological fallacy. This is the belief that a word's etymology determines its meaning. We see it whenever someone claims that decimate should mean "destroy one tenth", or anxious should only mean "full of anxiety", or that unique should only mean "one of a kind". Or when someone claims that enormity should only mean "enormousness"... wait, no one claims that, but they should if they want to be consistent.

Sometimes it is claimed that an earlier meaning of a word is its literal or real meaning, but really all that can be said is that an earlier meaning is an earlier meaning. Word histories are endlessly fascinating, but for all practical purposes they are irrelevant. Those who say that the real meaning of decimate is "destroy one tenth" should destroy their calendars for mistakenly putting December as the tenth month. They should also correct everyone who uses nice to mean "pleasing" - every English speaker, in other words - when its "real" meaning is "ignorant".

9 comments :

Stuart Douglas said...

It's more to do with utility than historical antecedents with somethign like decimate though - it's useful to have word whihc means destroy a small but decent sized proportion especially since there are no alternate words.

There are plenty of words for utterly destroy already.

goofy said...

I'm talking about the "destroy one tenth" meaning. It really does mean "destroy a large part of".

Stuart Douglas said...

But 'destroy one tenth of' doesn't mean 'destroy a large part of' - it (and only it, that I can think of) means 'destroy a small but significant percentage', which is why its original usage is useful.

A meaning which exactly mirrors lots of other words is far less useful.

goofy said...

Well, I don't think that a word meaning "destroy one tenth" is very useful. Anyway, you may want "decimate" to mean "destroy one tenth", fair enough. But it doesn't and never has:

http://www.dwin.org/expressionengine/index.php/site/comments/decimate/

Stuart Douglas said...

Hmm, that's all pretty weak John :)

For start, you've shifted your position quite quickly from "It really does mean "destroy a large part of" to "I don't think that a word meaning "destroy one tenth" is very useful".

You do seem to be floudnering a bit in the dwin article as well - leaving aside the fact that absolutely everyone I remember talking to about this at the time (and just now in a quick office poll) agreed that decimate meant destroy one tenth - to shrug off two of three meanings in favour of the one you like is exactly the kind of selective choice that you often accuse language didacts of.

Finally - "to select by lot and kill every tenth man of" sounds bloody similar to 'destroy one tenth of' by any sensible measure...

goofy said...

"For start, you've shifted your position quite quickly from "It really does mean "destroy a large part of" to "I don't think that a word meaning "destroy one tenth" is very useful"."

You said it was a useful meaning, and I don't think it is a useful meaning. That's all. I wasn't making a comment on whether I think it should or shouldn't be a real meaning of the word.

Sure, lots of people think the word means "destroy one tenth". But is it actually used to mean "destroy one tenth"? Lexicographers like Zimmer and Sheidlower say it has never been used in this way. And if a word has never been used with a certain meaning, then it seems reasonable to conclude that it does not have that meaning. After all, we determine what words mean by looking at how they are used, not by assuming they have the meanings we want them to have.

"Finally - "to select by lot and kill every tenth man of" sounds bloody similar to 'destroy one tenth of' by any sensible measure..."

I'm sure lots of people would agree. But the fact is that they are not the same. If we want to determine what words mean, then it's important to make fine distinctions.

The reason I'm shrugging off this meaning is because it is not how the word is used. If speakers started to use the word to mean "destroy one tenth" and we could determine from context that they really meant "destroy one tenth", then I would agree that it was one of the meanings of the word. Maybe speakers have started to use it this way, and it will be reflected in dictionaries in the future.

Cpuls said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cpuls said...

I disagree that "for all practical purposes etymologies are irrelevant." Comparing what certain words meant in the past with they mean now is a valid index of how sociocultural attitudes have changed over time. Of course, "decimate" would not be one of the words that would be a helpful index of culture, but I just wanted to point out that not all etymology is totally irrelevant.

alienvoord said...

Cpuls: that's a very good point, thanks.