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Interesting Etymologies 46 : Philosophy

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

Charly thinks that perhaps this should have been the first edition of Interesting Etymologies because etymology is the study of the meaning of words but we have not asked what does a word mean yet and that is philosophy not etymology.

To paraphrase Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), philosophy will take a statement that seems to be blindingly obvious and make you doubt it. So let us take a blindingly obvious statement in response to the question "What doe a word mean?" If we take "table", it is obvious what a table is, is it not? But what about when we "table" a motion, or what is a "water table" or a "timetable"? This is where philosophy and etymology intersect, as we need to understand the origin of words and what they mean to use them effectively.

Imagine you are entering a jungle and you see an arrow painted on a tree. How do we know which way the arrow is pointing? We use the symbol of an arrow as we have developed from hunter gatherer societies, we are familiar with the arrow and the direction it travels in.


Perhaps the most famous philosopher of language of the twentieth century was Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and he saw the world in terms of facts, not things. The oft used sound bite employed when people talk of Wittgenstein is "the meaning of a word is its use" which is taken out of context. The full quote is as follows: "For a large class of cases though not for all in which we employ the word meaning can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in language".

So what does this mean? If we taught a dog that "bimbam" meant "sit up on your hind legs" that is what that word would mean to the us and the dog. Yet, if the dog could speak, we would not understand it because we are not dogs. Wittgenstein reduces things down to what he calls "a form of life" which was addressed by Thomas Nagel (1937-) in his work on consciousness What is it like to be a bat?

Let us pursue a Wittgenstein argument for now: A man keeps a diary and writes "S" when he has a certain sensation. He is unable to describe this sensation. Who decides that "S" has been used correctly? The person writing the diary makes that decision. So if something happens which is similar to a previous experience, the letter can be used. Wittgenstein is making the point that the letter "S" in this case is not a use of language, but despite being often quoted as saying private languages were not possible, he never stated this. He is setting out the idea of private experiences such as a sensation of pain or the reaction to a colour is a basic neural response that is only accessible to the one experiencing the sensation. "Pain" and "Love" cannot be seen in the same way as "a table". Democracy is not a table. But none of these words are nothing. They do not lack meaning. Words are subject to agreed norms even if our perspective can differ from these norms in our individual experience. Love may elicit a positive concept in someone who has had a stable family background and a more cynical or negative response in someone who has experienced a difficult series of relationships in their life. We all know what a table is, but the table we conjure in our mind could be very different, and specific to our experience.

At the recording of this episode Merriam Webster is in the process of changing its definition of the word "racism" for example. This change could have profound effects on legal and social matters, but who decides on such definitions and how they change?

Descriptive v Prescriptive Grammar

Descriptive grammar tells you the way people use language and prescriptive grammar provides rules of grammar to follow. Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) makes an argument, based on science, on external influences on language but in reality it boils down to what does something mean to a group or person and what is the connection between the symbol/word and the person or group.

We have previously seen how Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) attempted to explore the meaning of the word "good" (see IE44 Etymologists) in his exploration of morality. His argument centres on the idea that Christianity has replaced the Roman virtues of strength, character, dignity with humility, modesty, non violence and obedience to God.

Umberto Eco (1932-2016), author of the novel The name of the Rose and Italian philosopher, does not agree with Nietzche. His book on etymology is called Kant and the Platypus. He explores some interesting questions. He looks at how the Aztecs assimilated the new concept of the horse and the differences between Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias, categorical knowledge and knowledge by properties. He uses the example of the platypus duck being introduced to Europe but the favoured example of philosophers for centuries is the Black Swan. The fact you cannot prove all swans are white even though every swan you have seen is white is a challenge to a certain way of seeing the world, the logical positivists. Their idea is that if the word does not refer to something concrete then it is actually meaningless. This condemns words like "god" to be meaningless. Much like a black swan, the statement "Extra terrestrial life exists in the Universe" cannot be proven but is obviously not nonsense.

Belief and knowledge

So when we are asking what words mean, how can we put ourselves into the place of the person or community that used the word? The mathematician Gottlob Frega (1848-1925) devised a system to separate the word and its subject as follows:

x believes that p

x desires that p

x intends that p

x discovered that p

x knows that p

"Tom believes that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn". As far as we know, that statement is correct.

"Tom believes that Samuel Clemens wrote Huckleberry Finn". Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) was Mark Twain's real name and they are both indicating the same object, but maybe Tom does not know that Samuel Clemens is Mark Twain so the first statement is true and the second is false. That will keep you awake at night...

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), the Renaissance man who did not live in the Renaissance, exercised his mind with the question "what is language?" His idea was that it was a kind of internal dialogue that uses the same internal dialogue as the thinkers language. This has the potential to develop into some kind of groupthink separating race from race and von Humboldt did actually believe the Germanic languages to be a language pinnacle. This would lead to the idea that there are not just different languages but different views of the world.

William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894) thought the Native American languages should be wiped out as they were formed from a world view of savages. (Learn more about words from Native American language words in English in IE8.2 and the controversy over the use of a particular word in IE40). Meanwhile in Northern Canada Franz Boa (1858-1942) became an Ethnographer due to his interest and work with the Inuit peoples. His argument was that all cultures are worth the same and there was no such thing as a primitive language. His student Edward Sapir (1884-1939) took this further arguing that no two languages are similar enough to represent the same social reality. Different societies are different worlds and these different words cannot be united by using common labels.

Different Worlds or Words?

Why do we say "I have cold" in French and Spanish but "I am cold" in English? Is the coldness a property I share in or is it a thing outside of me? If a taxi driver tells me a destination is in another direction he might say "me da la vuelta" - "it gives me the turn" which can confuse English speakers. What gives you the turn? Yet nobody ever has a problem with "it is raining".....What is raining? Sometimes we might see similarities where there are none. Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) in his work The Concept of the Mind makes the point that if you insist you want to see Oxford University and you do not realise there are multiple different colleges that make up the institution, then you are asking the wrong question. Where is the centre of town? Where is the University? Where is mind? Where is the number 5?

What time is it in Africa?

What time is it on the Moon?

When did the Universe begin?

If you talk of a Pegasus, we all know that means a winged horse, but we all know they never existed, don't we? Does that mean the word means nothing?

If I said the morning star today is brighter than the evening star last night? How would you analyse that statement? The morning star and the evening star are the same celestial body.

Language presents a picture of the world

The meaning of the word is its use - Wittgenstein

We have inherent grammatical structures in our brains - Pinker

Meanings can change dramatically overtime - Nietzsche

You should now be suitably confused, that is after all, what philosophy is for.

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.

Order your copy here


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