Saturday, August 04, 2007

Flawed etymologies

This week's TLS has a review of two books on Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, "The Verbal Doodles of Saint Isidore" by Emily Wilson, John Henderson
THE MEDIEVAL WORLD OF ISIDORE OF SEVILLE
Truth from words
244pp. Cambridge University Press. £55(US $99).
978 0 521 86740 5

Stephen A. Barney et al
THE ETYMOLOGIES OF ISIDORE OF SEVILLE
475pp. Cambridge University Press. £85. (US $150).
978 0 521 83749 1

Isidore's book of Etymologies was arguably the most influential medieval book after the Bible in the medieval west for 1000 years. He lived 530-632 CE.

The review says:-

Isidore became the patron saint of the internet in 1999. The analogy between the Etymologies and our own information superhighway is in many ways a tempting one. Like the internet, the book contains information from a bewildering number of different sources, ranging from ancient Roman proto-encyclopedias (especially Varro’s De Lingua Latina, Pliny’s Natural History and Servius’ commentaries on Virgil), through Byzantine school manuals on logic, music, grammar and architecture, to the works of Boethius, Jerome, Augustine and Eusebius. One of the few disappointments in the new English translation of the Etymologies is that the authors offer very little detailed information about Isidore’s sources. To do so would, of course, be the work of several lifetimes: more information on this subject will be forthcoming in the ongoing French edition of the Etymologies, of which so far five volumes out of twenty have appeared.

It may often seem as if Isidore, like a bad search engine, offers little or no control over all this material. Certainly, much of the “information” he provides is (from a modern perspective) blatantly false, albeit entertaining. For instance, we are assured that “Beavers (castor) are so-called from castrating (castrare). Their testicles are useful for medicines, on account of which, when they anticipate a hunter, they castrate themselves and amputate their own genitals with their teeth”. Isidore lifts this detail of natural history straight from Pliny (backed up, in this case, by a number of other ancient authorities, including Aristotle and Juvenal). As with the internet, written testimony takes on a life of it's own – even in cases where you might think it would be better to go out and look at some beavers. That thought seems not to have occurred to anybody for several hundred years: the story of the self-castrating beavers was still current in the seventeenth century, and was mocked by Thomas Browne in his wonderful analysis of ancient errors, the Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646.

The review later rejects the internet analogy. My favorite paragraph:-

Most of Isidore’s supposed etymologies are – by the standards of modern academic philology – complete twaddle. About a quarter of them are made up out of his own head. The Etymologies often reads like a series of bad puns: “Horses (equus) are so called because when they were yoked in a team of four they were balanced (aequare)”; “Humus (humus) was the material from which the human (homo) was made”. His real subject is the Latin language in which he writes. This makes the Etymologies extraordinarily difficult to translate in a satisfactory way. As Isidore himself suggests, translators have to be like priests or prophets: “Translator (interpres) because he is the medium ‘between the sides’ (inter-pres) of two languages when he translates. But the person who interprets (interpretari) God is also called an interpreter for the humans to whom he reveals divine mysteries”.

It's truly alarming how etymological explanations still play a role in our seminary education. As if etymology offers the only necessary explanation of a word or idea. Is disgruntled the opposite of gruntle?? Does "prophet" in Greek really mean pro +phemi, namely, "someone who speaks on behalf of another person/God?" Does apostle really mean someone who is "sent out" from the Greek apo + the verb "stello"? Moreover, do these explanations make sense of what we actually know of prophetic and apostolic activity? Passion isn't only about suffering. It's about desire and enthusiasm and anger as well. Ekklesia does not define a "church" as being "called out." The word connotes an assembly.

Anyone care to share their favorite etymological fallacies?

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