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Etymology is the art of revealing the formation of a word and the development of its meaning.  The source of the word itself is Greek, etumos, “real, true”, and thus the art is “finding the underlying or true meaning of words”.  There is also the sense of “root”, as in the history of a word, rather than its meaning.  But of course, the history of the word is in many cases, the history of its meaning.  

Etaoin shrdlu, for example is used to indicate confusion or mistake.  Pronounced (on those very rare occasions) et i oy-in shurdloo, it is actually the first two vertical rows of keys of a Linotype machine.  It’s a lot like qwerty, which denotes a modern typewriter keyboard.  

The delightful strangeness of etymology derives from all manner of weirdness.  Yucatan, for example, is allegedly the answer to the Spanish explorer Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba’s question to a native as to what the name of the place was.  In the Indian dialect, Yucatan means, “I don’t understand you.” [1]  

Similarly, indri, the name of a short-tailed lemur of Madagascar, means, “look” -- which a French naturalist took to be its name when it was pointed out to him.  Kangaroo is the reply to Captain James Cook’s question about the name of the strange marsupial Cook had just seen.  The native had answered, “Kangaroo” which means “I don’t know”.  Llama derived its name from “Como se llama?”, Spanish for what’s its name?  When the Indians repeated the word, llama, the name for the animal became “name” or “llama”. [1]  

Meanwhile, Luzon (in the Philippines) means “What did you say?”, while Nome, Alaska gained its moniker by a map reader misreading a notation on a rough map of “name?” [1]  

Not all of etymology is a series of misunderstandings and confusion.  Lunatic, for example, is literally “moonstruck” according to one authority [1] and derived from lunaticus -- meaning “living on the moon” -- by another [2].  The latter is curious in that Adam and Eve were in some very ancient traditions alleged to have come from the moon, and thus were properly referred to as Lunatics.  

The problem with the evolution of words -- one of the banes of Language -- is that there is in fact an evolution.  Virgin, for example, once meant “beholden to no man”, but its more recent version is a far cry from the original.  [Note that one aspect of The Great Goddess, the Greek’s Aphrodite, for example, was considered to be a virgin goddess -- i.e., she was a woman of independent means!  To say the least.  But not exactly a woman not practiced in the sexual arts!]  

Meanwhile, the double-speak of modern politicians further degrade the original meanings of words for their own questionable benefit.  The United States Department of Defense is one of the more offensive organizations in the world [pardon the pun].  Reduction in Force means a lot of people are losing their jobs; a dollar originally meant a foreign coin (such as a Spanish piece of eight) and is now a designation of colored Money (with nothing resembling a backing of a precious metal such as silver); and elections originally indicated selecting officials such as Presidents by a majority of the voters.  

Advertising has added to the English Language such delights as halitosis, derriere, lingerie, and irregularity.  While the Corporate State, in general, has created human resources (instead of personnel or the more accurate, cannon fodder), mergers (where many are left outside the fold and go unmerged), and fringe benefits (a type of benefit which is “an ornamental bordering of threads left loose or formed into tassels or twists” -- as well as “a strip of false color in an optical image”).  Corporate accounting, as a means of measuring the net value of a company, is, of course, no longer accountable to anyone, much less the owners (shareholders) of a company.  

Etymology at the level of law is a fascinating other matter.  A fundamental basis of law is that old law supersedes new law -- not the other way around.  What went first has more power than what came after.  Thus the concept of always referencing earlier case law in order to justify a new ruling.  But many of the fundamentals of law, the Nature of Law, is based on precedent.  I.e. “A course of conduct once followed which may serve as a guide for future conduct.”  Also, “Courts attempt to decide cases on the basis of principles established in prior cases.” [3]  

The key ingredient here is that the original definition of terms is legally of greater import or value in the course of making a legal judgment than anything that follows.  Suddenly the etymology of legal terms is of enormous significance.  The first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, for example, establishes precedent over the sixth and later versions, and thus the earliest version is potentially far more valuable than anything following.   

An important result of such legal precedents are that from a strictly legal point of view, the revision of meanings in order to accomplish specific agendas, to manipulate and control, and to attempt to deny freedoms and inalienable rights is fundamentally illegal.  Law is and should be above the manipulations by governments, courts, and law enforcement agencies.  The fact that defendants and others who attempt to use basic law, even constitutional law, in order to defend themselves... the fact these people may find courts ignoring the Nature of Law, and simply doing whatever the court feels is expedient or self-serving is more truly an indictment of the courts than anything else.  

Another aspect is that much of the most basic law -- such as the precept that “Silence implies consent” -- is older than, and thus supersedes virtually all case law, and certainly every single statutory or other law in the relatively young United States of America.  The ultimate derivation of words and phrases is thus of monumental importance.  

On a less legalistic, and more ethical basis, therefore, there is great importance in knowing the original meanings and origins of words and phrases.  The constant attempts to redefine words in convenient ways is something to be avoided at all costs.  

For example, Michael Kinsley [4] has noted that in Washington tax discussions: “Reform is any change in the tax code that you favor.”  “A tax subsidy is any deduction or exemption that you oppose.”  And that incentive “is any tax complication that you approve of.” [emphasis added]  Dictionaries may dodge this issue by such subtitles as “a dictionary of modern English usage”, but there is implied in such titles carte blanche in redefining words as per a subjective interpretation of usage.  The fact remains that such revisionist concepts are unethical and indicative of a lack of simply honesty.  

So what do you suppose is the meaning of “machination”? [5]  


Education         Language         Groupies         The Art of Writing

Or forward to:

Symbolism         Dyslexia         Indigo Children         The Public School Nightmare



[1]  Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File; Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Checkmark Books, New York, 2000.

[2]  John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins, Columbia Marketing, London, 1990.

[3]  Black’s Law Dictionary, Abridged Sixth Edition, West Publishing, St. Paul, 1991.

[4]  Michael Kinsley, “Tax Reform in Plain English.  Honest!”, Time Magazine, December 9, 2002.

[5]  “The act of planning or contriving a scheme for executing some purpose, particularly an evil purpose; an artful design formed with deliberation.  See also Artifice; Scheme.”



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