From: yochanan bitan (
Date: Mon Jun 12 2000 - 05:52:04 EDT


First a friendly, cold water wake-up:
Etymology, studying the roots and history of a word, should be avoided like
the plague by beginning students, or at least treated like 'playing with
fire'. It invariably leads them into trouble, bad habits and false
conclusions. Worse, it keeps them from nurturing proper channels of
inquiry. There is a place for etymology, but that is SECONDARY to a word's

A word has meaning according to its use and function and place within its
language, not according to its geneology. A student should read and
investigate as much contemporary literature as possible in order to clarify
(this form helps me think about the word more abstractly than the
'I-am-praying' form)
See what other words a particular word is commonly used with?
What are its synonyms? This is extremely important because those are
potential words that were NOT used in a particular context.
Are there any 'fixed phrases' or contexts where the word is used?
Among its synonyms, is it a commonplace word or a rarer, more specific,
perhaps more literary, formal or polite word?
How is it used within various segments of society or within different
cultures. E.g. the noun PROSEUCH is associated with Jewish synagogues in
the diaspora. (Compare it with Hellenistic/Egyptian rituals, check out
words like PROSKUNHMA, etc.)

In short, use common sense. How would you want someone to interpret your
own English writings at the beginning of the 21st century? By reading
against relevant, contemporary, cultural usages, or instead, by discussing
Latin roots, Beowolf and Chaucer? Hopefully, the first.

As a parallel example to 'pray', think of what MEDITATE might mean in
California in the late twentieth century "He's into meditation" versus a
nineteenth century frontier evangelist "Meditate on this"? (If that example
isn't helpful enough, then check out 'make love' and 'gay', just a
generation ago.)

And think of the words used in this email: CAIREIN and ERRWSO, 'being
happy' and 'be healthy', Their situation and function as salutations
provides the context for proper interpretation while their etymology
becomes a historical curiousity.

OK, enough of my practicing for communicating to my own students.

Randall Buth

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