Re: Etymology vs. Usage

Luke McNab (
Mon, 06 Jan 1997 10:30:19 -0800 wrote:
> Greetings. Luke McNab in a previous post (excerpts below) gives some
> reasons why etymology should be considered more important than usage.
> As can be seen from previous posts I disagree with his views. I thought
> that it may be enlightening to give a brief overview of my background so
> that perhaps the reasons for my position can be more easily understood.
I must confess to great intellectual delight in reading the posts
engendered by the above subject. Please believe me that I'm not
endeavouring to belittle personalities nor even berate anyone's ideas.
I'm slightly amused by one poster's reference to an idea of mine as
"linguistically naive". It serves little purpose to tell such that I
have had more years than he [if he's under 60 yrs.] just in studying
some 9 or 10 languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew etc. and some up
to the doctorate level, as well as speaking a few fluently.
I reaffirm that English -before the Norman conquest- [speaking in
the general sense] and referring specifically to Anglo-Saxon rather than
Celtic, is primarily a monosyllabic language and could cite hundered of
words to sustain this idea, but perhaps it is off-topic here on this
IMHO, to say, as one 'poster' noted [and others implied] that it is
"fallacious" to use etymology as the basic rule of thumb, [or generally
words to that effect,] I'd like to quote the Oxford Dictionary's meaning
of the word etymology: "Account of, facts relating to, formation &
meaning of word;..." Also "etymon"--"Primary word that gives rise to a
the derivative. [L.f. Gk. etumon (neut. of etumos true) literal sense,
original form, of a word." Is it not, therefore, rather ludicrous to
state that the meaning and sense of a word does not depend on the
etymology but on the usage? Let's take the English language, for
example, the usage varies like the four corners of the earth where it is
spoken. Not only the accent, pronunciation, but grammatical
construction, choice of words etc. vary in say, the Southern States,
England, Africa, India and the Far East. In all these places the
etymology, IMHO, is what unites, binds and makes coherent the language
of English. My personal conclusion about this and also with reference to
Greek and Hebrew is that usage is or can vary as the sands, quicksand
and even quagmire, whereas etymology is like the solid rock that stands
the test of time.
> According to the theory of language I follow, the meaning of the word is
> based on how a word is used and not on the history of the word. This is
> true in English and is true in all of the other languages I have
> studied.
The "meaning of a word" [from Oxford Dict. above] is what, IMHO, is
called the etymology. The "history of the word" could be called the
usage, perhaps?
> I can understand a word apart from its etymology.
> don't know the etymologies of most of the words I know and use.
> Children learn the meanings of words from how they are used, not from
> the histories of the words. An unlearned, illiterate can know the
> meanings of words and, in fact, has to in order to communicate. But
> that person is unlikely to know the etymologies of these words. The
> only time etymology comes into play is when an unknown word is
> encountered and the meaning is not clear from context.
No one is saying that it is necessary to know the etymology of word
[though it may help], it is useful when doubt arises as to the meaning
and implication of a word.

> T be a philologist and be ale to prove the etymology of the word. But the
> etymology would only give the right meaning in this context if the
> etymology matched the author's usage, i.e., intended meaning.
I'd disagree here. Are we not putting the cart before the horse in
In a final comment on another poster's comment about "Goodbye" and "God
be with You". Does not the lack of knowledge of the origin of this
word(s) come from the virtual banning of Religion, Scripture and the
like from our schools?
God-speed! ;-)