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Interesting Etymologies 44 : Etymologists

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

A little diversion today as we are going to look at Etymologists rather than Etymology! How many etymologists are there in the world? Do people actually get paid to explore the history of words?

John Aubrey was an Englishman who had many interests, including antiquities. He lived in the nineteenth century and had some interesting thoughts on proto-etymology.

He wished to see a good dictionary that covered English and Latin along with old Danish, primitive English & French and Indo European words would be of benefit. He clearly had an understanding of the root of words.

In March 1890 he wrote a theory on the Thames name, stating that the Romans gave Latin endings to their places, so perhaps Tames was the original name and they ended the "is" ending making it Tamesis. He had a fascination with place names especially but he was not the first to show such interest.

The philosopher Nietzsche had established his name on the back of a book called "The Genealogy of Morals" in which he dissected the word for good. He considered the Latin word "bonus" could be traced back to an earlier word meaning warrior (man of strife). This topic is still discussed today and it is generally understood that Nietzche's theory was half right. Charly investigates the root a little more in the programme but then we return to the quest for the fathers of etymology:

Pindar (518 B.C - 437 B.C) A Greek poet who was "full of etymologies" but there is a clear distinction from the modern field of study. Ancient etymologies are largely guess work and often intended to flatter people regarding the heritage of their name.

Plutarch (c. 46 - c. 119) A Greek philosopher who liked to "dabble" in etymology. He suggested that the etymology of Pontifex was not the obvious "bridge builder" (Ponte) but from Portens (powerful).

Isidore of Seville (c. 560 - 4 April 636) His great work on the lives of the saints begins with the etymology of each saint, which he called "a tracing of first things". He was quite good in his understanding of the meanings of names but this work was not so revealing on the source or root of words.

The Byzantines Etymologicum Genuinum and the Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine are both perhaps the earliest examples of etymological classification in print.

Away from Europe we should also consider names such as Kātyāyana and Patañjali writing in India in the 6th to 2nd centuries B.C. They derive meanings and origins from Vedic texts.

Returning to more modern names, a case can be made for Hungarian Joannis Sajnovics (May 12 1733 - May 4 1785) as a pioneer in the field of Comparative Linguistics who demonstrated the relationship between Sami languages and Hungarian.

William Jones (September 28 1746 - April 27 1794) (Charly states he was a Welsh man but he was born to Welsh parents in London). He was considered a linguistic prodigy and an impressive philologist who identified similarities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.

Noah Webster (October 16 1748 - May 28 1843) of American Webster's dictionary fame was also an etymologist though his work is criticised.

Sir James Murray (February 7 1837 - July 29 1915) A Scotsman and first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary made significant progress in the foundational work of established etymological canon.

Paul Ziff (October 22 1920 - January 9 2003) wrote a book called Semantic Analysis in which he analyses the many meanings of the word "good", much in the same vein of the work of Nietzsche.

The Brothers Grimm (Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm Jan 4 1785 - September 20 1863 & Wilhelm Carl Grimm February 24 1786 - December 16 1859) require an honourable mention. Jacob was interested in German mythology from an etymological point of view. The pair began the 33 volume German dictionary which contains over 33, 000 referenced words. As they studied old folk stories they began to be drawn into how language was structured and how it changed.

The decoding of the Rosetta Stone (1799)

A stone tablet discovered in 1799 that had a decree written in three different languages (Hieroglyphic & Demotic script and Ancient Greek). The decree in English can be read in full here. It has become a short hand for a solution to a complex problem due to the astonishing success it provided in decoding ancient texts. There was a book written in the 5th century Hieroglyphica by Horapollo which explains the meaning of Hieroglyphs. This was taken as authoritative and led to many misconceptions. Arabic historians arrived in Egypt in the 9th and 10th centuries and began to make more in depth investigations, comparing Hieroglyphics and the Coptic alphabet, but progress was very limited until the Rosetta stone was found.

Famous French Polyglot Jean-François Champollion (December 23 1790 - March 4 1832) is credited with finally solving the puzzle but it took many people to piece the clues together, it was the work of Thomas Young and his letters to and from William Banks that provided the building blocks for Champollion to crack the code. He presented his results in 1822 in Paris. Thomas Young was among those in the audience to listen to his lecture.

Thomas Young (June 13 1773 - May 10 1829) A British polymath who was also referred to as "The last man who knew everything" helped in the work on the Rosetta Stone but also proposed a wave theory for light and the first man to describe Astigmatism among many other impressive feats. He had already noticed similarities between Indic and European languages leading him to analyse 400 languages. This led to the conclusion that a lot of the similarities could not be accidental. He gave the example of Honey in Russian (myod) and Sanskrit (madhu) being similar and with no commonality between the two the words must come from the same source. Mead (the alcoholic drink made with honey) is the branch in English, with met and mjød in Danish.

William John Banks (December 11 1786 - April 15 1855) A politician and explorer was considered a rival to Champollion who had a fascination with Egypt and excelled in copying ancient inscriptions.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor

Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.

Until now.

This is the story of how ‘Nobody’ Skip DeLirio, with the cards finally all dealt in his favour, still managed to fuck it up. History will only take you so far. The rest is make-believe.

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