Saturday, October 25, 2014

Etymology is not destiny. A short rant.

Sometimes when I try to engage in discussions with people who disagree with me on the internet. And sometimes when I do this the person I'm speaking with will drag up dictionary definitions and the etymological lineage of a particular term I am either using or that we are discussing.

Now, as a writer and poet, I have a deep love and vested interest in etymology. It can provide wonderful context and a rich sense of history to a word or discussion about that word. But as a word nerd who holds etymology very dear to their heart I resent it being used as evidence in a disagreement.  It's a cheap and inappropriate ploy. Here's why.

Calls to etymology are a distrustful derailment technique. They deny the way the other party uses words and assert the authority of past uses of those/that word/s. It's basically a pedantic version of sticking one's fingers in one's ears and singing "la la la. I'm not listening."

But let's take it further. The implication here is deeply unfortunate. Someone who makes this call to the authority of etymology is not only refusing to listen to the way the other person's using words, but they are making a stand for meanings and concepts to never change. That's right folks, this use of etymology implies that the speaker/writer supports continuing the use of out of date meanings for in modern contexts. This is one of the mechanisms by which oppressive the verbal tics of history get carried over.

Beyond that, it's just unrealistic and comically Sisyphean to cling to origins and historical meanings and ways of doing things. Yes, there's much value in using them as starting points for how to communicate and live our lives. But we will always need to find new ways to communicate. The context of the worlds we live in shift and along with it so should they ways we use our words and tools.

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