Monday, February 12, 2007

Faux Etymologies

Every once in a while I question the ambition of my posts. Usually right after I hit the "publish" button. One of my interests is etymology and several of my posts have done little more than report on the Middle English, French, Old English, Old French, Latin, Greek, or Indo-European roots of our words today. This requires little more than a trip to the OED to plot the history of the word in English, then a trip to Webster's New World and American Heritage to trace it back to IE then identify a few cognates. There's little analysis going on when I decide to do one of these quick reports.

In just the last day or two etymology has ridden a swell of attention on my own posts and in linguistic conversations elsewhere. Just scroll down (or click here or here) to read my posts on conceive and human. Earlier today on the ADS-LISTSERV Laurence Horn suggested that William Safire needs to open the OED before he guesses about etymology:

Tell it to Safire, who noted toward the end of yesterday's "On
Language" column:

And when anticipating the surge of the politically hot word surge, I
wrote that it came from the Latin surgere, ''to rise,'' which is
correct, but speculated that it may also be the root of surgeon. Not
so; Cynthia Wolfe and a bunch of cheery folks waving scalpels pointed
out that the word comes from the Latin chirurgia, based on the Greek
kheir, ''hand.'' An antiquities dictionary defines the Greek word as
that ''which cures diseases by means of the hand,'' distinguishing
surgeons from physicians, who treat with medicines.

There is to be sure a place for etymological speculation in columns
on language--linking "Cry Uncle" to the punchline of a late 19th
century joke, as in Michael Quinion's recent column, or deriving "the
whole nine yards" from Montagnard references during the Vietnam War
may qualify--but publishing an incorrect etymology that could be
easily be quashed by cracking *any* dictionary (with etymological
info) somehow doesn't strike me as mere "speculation"...


On Languagehat is a discussion of the origin of dodo.

On Language Log Barack Obama's first name gets some attention.

I'm not sure there's any real danger in not knowing the true history of a word. But it is amusing and then a little frustrating when hokum hinders honest inquiry.


  1. Are you playing on "folk etymology" in your title?



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