Etymology

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I was reading the Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD) this morning to look up more details on Euripides’ play Erectheus, which is only survived in some quoted passages in other works, and rather amazingly in some papyrus that was used to wrap a mummy. The reason for this search is the new book by Joan B. Connolly, the Parthenon Enigma, which summarizes her long-standing theory that the frieze on the Parthenon denotes a human sacrifice, discussed in the New Yorker here ($). Connolly uses quotations from the play (among other things) to justify this claim, since in the play the daughters of Erectheus (an early/mythological king of Athens) volunteer to die after an oracle declares only a royal virgin will guarantee victory in war. (I use the third edition OCD, but there is a fourth edition.)

Coincidentally nearby the entry for Erectheus in the OCD is the entry for “Etymology,” which I was intrigued to see was a contested theory in Greek and Roman times, with Socratic debates (in Cratylus) and textbooks (Varro’s De lingua Latina). The two main theories were that words were a matter of convention (nomos) which was opposed by the idea that words bore some natural relationship between sign and signified (physis). The latter view prevailed, according to the OCD.

In Cratylus (still summarizing the OCD), Cratylus argues for physis against Hermogenes, who argues for nomos. The play raises some influential etymological concepts, including the idea that language comes from a few basic building blocks or stoichea (422a).

The entry also discusses Augustine’s De dialectica which may have been based in Varro (116-27BCE). There are some interesting ideas here, and the OCD lists Augustine’s summary of Stoic approaches to etymology and word derivation:

(1) through similarity (a similitudine) with the sound of the word (onomatopoeia), as in the case of balatus the ‘bleating’ of sheep, or with its impression on the senses, as with the harsh-sounding vepres, ‘brambles’; (2) through similarity between one thing and another: so crura, ‘legs’, are named for crux, ‘cross’, because legs are long and hard like a wooden cross; (3) through various forms of proximity (a vicinitate), as with for example horreum, ‘granary’, which is named from the thing it contains, hordeum, ‘barley’; (4) from contrariety (e contrario), as with lucus, ‘a grove’ because minimae luceat, ‘it has little light’, and bellum, ‘war’, because it is not a res bella, ‘a pretty thing.’ Examples of all these types can be found in Varro (OCD entry, Etymology).

This passage affords us some comparisons with Foucault’s discussions of etymology and similarity in the Order of Things, although as far as I know he does not mention either Augustine or Varro in that book. Nevertheless, in Chap. 2 “The Prose of the World,” Foucault outlines four notions of similarity in the 16th Century (“the time when resemblance was about to relinquish its relation with knowledge and disappear”): convenientia (spatial proximity); aemulatio or non-proximal imitation [in the computer world we speak of a computer “emulator”]; analogy, which comprises nearness and farness at the same time; and sympathies [cf. sympathetic magic, as for example in one of the “solutions” to the problem of longitude, where a “powder of sympathy” was proposed that could simultaneously work across the distance between the ship and its home port], a drawing of things together in a movement (hence, change).

What is interesting here is that all of these must be read, even those that appear hidden (coded, encrypted or secret). This reading is done through signs and signatures. This clearly points to the need for knowledge; the knowledge of the adept or initiate and conceivably to a discipline (semiology). You can see here an indication of the mutuality between ciphers and scholars (as well as mantics).

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