Thursday, January 20, 2011

what do you know about your word?

Following up on yesterday’s idea, that before becoming literate people experience words as ahistorical, that is, a word means what it means now, as though it had just been invented and had never meant anything else. I’ve seen highly literate people so enamored of a word’s history that they seem convinced that history remains indelibly a part of the word’s body, that archaic meanings never quite go away, that they remain, at least, a subliminal meaning.

In her book on adopting the ways of the urban naturalist, Crow Planet, Lyanda Lynn Haupt recalls her early infatuation with the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Among the naturalist practices that Thoreau praised (& that Haupt recommends) is walking. Get out of your car. Get off your bike, even. Walk.

Haupt quotes a passage in which Thoreau waxes philosophic about “’sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under the pretense of going “a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer, a Saunterer, a Holy Lander.’”

After a little research Haupt declares Thoreau’s a “false etymology. … The modern lexicographic scholarship states that the origin of saunter is unknown,” though there are guesses, the Sainte Terre idea not being one currently given credit, it seems.

I’ve read about other false etymologies, particularly with regard to names, whether animal or place, that originated outside English. If one learns a bird’s name and it sounds like, say, Shouthead, it seems reasonable enough to assume that the bird was given that name because the darn thing shouts a lot. But suppose you were to learn that the first English-speakers asked the locals the name of the bird and the locals said something that sounded vaguely like “Shouthead”, the word meaning in the original language something entirely different, “Beautiful feathers,” maybe.

How significant is a word’s history to the word’s meaning if we have no knowledge of that history?

source: Crow Planet: essential wisdom from the urban wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

No comments: