In this week's TLS, Emily Wilson reviews a new translation of Isidore of Seville's Origines, popularly called the Etymologiae. I was glad to learn about this, because I've been looking forward to the volume for almost two years now. Isidore, a Visigothic bishop of the seventh century, is the sort of writer snubbed by classicists (too late), mediaevalists (too early) and other scholars (too unreliable). And yet, as even Wikipedia attests, he is the first serious encyclopaedist after Pliny, and one of the few important lights of the early Middle Ages. In the Origines, Isidore compiled a summary of European knowledge in twenty books, organised according to a scheme of explanation by etymology—defined as 'origo vocabulorum, cum vis verbi vel nominis per interpretationem colligitur', or 'the origin of words, when the force of a verb or a noun is gathered by interpretation'. For Isidore, finding the etymon (truth) behind a word was paramount to understanding its significance:
Nam dum videris unde ortum est nomen, citius vim eius intellegis. Omnis enim rei inspectio etymologia cognita planior est.Wilson correctly remarks, 'This notion of the pedagogical value of etymologies guides Isidore’s magnum opus, the Etymologies, which offers an encyclopedic account of just about everything, from grammar to God, and from Nero to newts—all expounded through the underlying truth of the Latin language.' The problem with this, in Wilson's eyes, is that Isidore's etymological analysis is so deeply primitive:
For when you have seen whence a word comes, you will soon be able to understand its force. Indeed, the enquiry into anything is clearer when its etymology is known.
Most of Isidore’s supposed etymologies are—by the standards of modern academic philology—complete twaddle. About a quarter of them are made up out of his own head. The Etymologies often reads like a series of bad puns: "Horses (equus) are so called because when they were yoked in a team of four they were balanced (aequare)". . .We hear the same thing in Dot Wordsworth's Spectator review:
The problem with Isidore is that almost half his etymologies are incorrect, and his success rate is not helped by a compulsion to preserve ancient authorities even when he knows they must be awry.Wordsworth agrees that true etymology is 'the work of the 19th century', and that even Johnson's 1755 propositions are 'hopeless'—an overstatement. As well as an indictment of Isidore's scholarship, this 'twaddle' makes translation difficult, and in Wilson's opinion the present edition plays it a little too safe, using bracketed Latin rather than converting Isidore's analysis into English:
Mostly this is fine, if unexciting, though there are inevitably moments when the committee nods. For instance, we are told that "health (salus) is thought to take its name from salt (sal), for nothing is better for us than salt (sal) and sun—in fact, we see that the bodies of sailors are well-hardened". It is pleasing to be reminded that people once thought that lying out in the UV rays and eating olives was a kind of health cure. But the translators miss a trick here, since the Latin word for sun—sol—also sounds similar to salt (sal) and health (salus). Isidore’s language puts all three together.We might think that Wilson herself has missed a trick here: after all, the translators have introduced a play, converting Latin nautae into English sailors, which 'also sounds similar' to sal and salus. But notice also Wilson's sentence 'It is pleasing to be reminded. . .' Her tone is arch and dismissive: those delightful little fools. The tone is heard again here:
There are some wonderful comic moments, when the pure play of language results in extreme banality. It is somehow deeply comforting to be told that "A sheep (ovis) is a mild livestock animal, with wool, a defenceless body, and a peaceful temperament".Wilson treats Isidore's text as something resolutely of the past—as a book of merely historical interest, like the crude daubings of savages in Lascaux. It is a volume to be 'dipped into', 'a perfect lavatory book'—sort of a quaint version of Buck's Dictionary of Selected Synonyms. For Wilson, the only benefit of Isidore is his 'pure play of language'—a very modernist (or postmodernist) idea—as if there were no bounds, rules, limits, or decorum to his analyses. When she comes to review, in the same article, a new book on Isidore, she says of the author's 'crazy' translations of certain etymologies that 'the little samples he offers are a helpful reminder of Isidore’s playfulness—even his jouissance'. Fashion creeps in. And when she writes, towards the end of her review, that 'Etymology can be a way of showing our debt to tradition: ancient cultures are preserved in the words we write', I hear not so much Isidore's project as the clarion call of today's academian multiculturalist.
Emily Wilson refers to Isidore's etymological analyses as 'truly silly'. I propose a moratorium on the use of this word, 'silly', to describe intellectual efforts of past ages. It betokens a mind closed to the difficulties of history—closed to those aspects of the past that are genuinely strange to us. As Wilson remarks, 'As the new translators remark, the Etymologies was "arguably the most influential book, after the Bible, in the learned world of the Latin West for nearly a thousand years".' If you are happy to call the contents of such a book 'silly', you're probably missing something. Wilson's concession to Isidore's seriousness and significance is this, after a mention of some loaded political etymologies at the end of her review:
As Isidore well knew, etymology is not a value-neutral science. The search for a "truth in words" is cultural, moral and philosophical, as well as philological. . . The writers of etymologies—from Isidore in the seventh century to politicians in modern times—choose how we should define our world.This is absolutely correct; but in the context of this review the statement feels grudging, a grand proposition lacking in conviction and vitality. We need to take this idea more seriously, and not merely pay lip-service to it; we need, in other words, to take Isidore more seriously.
Wilson collapses the Isidorean etymology onto the pun: 'The Etymologies often reads like a series of bad puns', ' Isidore’s puns and wordplay may go beyond the strict boundaries of the etymological definition', ' Isidore’s cringe-inducing pun'. Isidore's analyses are not true etymologies—because a true etymology looks like the sort of thing in the OED, ie. 'modern academic philology'—so they must be mere puns, or else 'twaddle', or both. Why make the distinction?
Daniel Fried ('Of Boars, Rhapsodes, and the Uses of Culturalist Error' in Comparative Literature 57.4), thinks etymology more dangerous than the pun. He distinguishes between good and bad etymology, making explicit what remains implicit in Wilson's review:
Good etymology is correct and responsible etymology, and it tells us about language itself, its structures and developments; it is only a key to literary locks when employed with the utmost expertise. But bad etymology is worse than useless: it is the province of modern cranks and well-meaning ancients who were in way over their heads. Bad etymology is essentialist and polemical (in addition to being wrong): it asserts that the one true hidden meaning of a given word or name is disclosed by whatever word seems to make the closest phonic match.(For David Dawson, by contrast, the ancient etymologists were not so much well-meaning as canny manipulators of textual authority: 'the etymologist could counter charges of hermeneutic willfulness with the claim to have uncovered the original foundation of meaning [of a word]'.)
But Fried's passage is a remarkable bit of moralising. Fried and Wilson have much in common—Fried's 'well-meaning ancients' might as well be Isidore, and both note that older etymologies are both polemical and factually wrong. Fried, like Wilson, is a multiculturalist, a Bakhtinian heteroglot, as is so common among the denizens of today's academy—and this is his agenda in attacking the 'essentialism' or absolutism of the 'bad etymology'. It is much the same as Popper's feelings towards Plato and Hegel. However,
Puns are more amenable to intelligent analysis because they are less grand in their claims. Puns, like etymology, are prestidigitations of the phoneme or grapheme, and a quick-switch assertion that this is that, a given word or usage is a stand-in for another. But the punster plays the game for low stakes. . . The punster does not discover meaning buried within words, but rather expropriates the serendipities of language and works them into an assertive creation of meaning.The truth is that Fried's last sentence presents a false dichotomy. Isidore says that he is discovering meaning buried in words; but let us remove the word 'buried', and say that he is discovering meaning in words. Let us say that he has found a device for retrieving unsuspected meaning from words—a device that makes full use of the 'serendipities of language'. Is he not, then, creating meaning? Is the creation of meaning not at the heart of Isidore's project?
Fried is afraid of the totalising impulse, the totalitarian impulse—but it is the mark of a great character and intellect to impose its shape upon all the materials that it encounters. We value the coherence, scope and power of a man's vision: and to the extent that he can bend the meaning of words to his will, we can only admire him.
Beckett saw Joyce as a magician who could do anything with language: he could turn a word into its opposite, or discover its relation to any other, by altering a couple of letters. And so with Isidore—he can disclose the relation between a man (homo) and the dirt (humus) of which he is made. And he can turn a word into its opposite, too: in Origines I.29, on etymology itself, he mentions the class of etymologies 'ex contrariis [datae]', ie. those traditionally called 'antiphrastic'. The most famous of these analyses is the traditional 'lucus a non lucendo', which derives lucus (grove) from lucere (to shine), because groves are so dark that no light can shine through. As Isidore has it, ''lucus', quia umbra opacus parum luceat'. Although apparently ludicrous ('silly'), this type of etymology exhibits the logic of the negative, exploited by magical thinkers throughout history; compare, for instance, Freud on the 'antithetical meaning of primal words'.
The concept of 'lucus a non lucendo' had been the object of scepticism from the start—it is first mentioned by Quintilian who quotes it mockingly. It was later put into its canonical form by Servius, and recycled throughout the Middle Ages. (I once jotted an idea for a story called Lucas Anon Lucinda.) In the Renaissance, according to Dilwyn Knox (Ironia, 1989) came a reaction against mediaeval antiphrastic etymologies:
Now it was suggested instead that lucus derived from lux straight-forwardly: sacred groves were often illuminated by religious fires.Knox goes on to discuss the even more recondite theory of Annius:
The Latin word lucus, he explained, was not derived per antiphrasin, but was a straightforward derivation from the Aramaic and hence Etruscan [!] word luca meaning 'old man' or 'council of elders'.Similarly, in Sanctius' 1587 Minerva (I translate from my French edition):
For my part, I think lucus comes from an Etruscan word. In effect Varro, in the Origines [V.55], affirms that Luceres and Lucumones are Etruscan names. Furthermore, Luca, with the accent on the latter syllable, as the Talmudists pronounce it, is the same thing in Etruscan as senex or senator. And since antiquity the books of poets have been full of Luci and of rites religione parentum. . .This new anti-antiphrastic movement, represented also by Agostino Dati and J. C. Scaliger, found its precursor in none other than Isidore of Seville. In Origines 14.8.30 he provides an alternative etymology for lucus:
Lucus est locus densis arboribus septus, solo lucem detrahens. Potest et a conlucendo crebris luminibus dici, quae ibi propter religionem gentilium cultumque fiebant.What's interesting is that Isidore gives both etymologies—hardly a 'one true hidden meaning', more a jouissance with the 'serendipities of language'—just what Wilson and Fried approve of. In fact Isidore is not the powerful force imposing his metaphysics on language—for these characters we have to wait for the nineteenth century, for Walter Whiter, James Byrne and John Horne Tooke—near-contemporary with the holy founders of scientific philology—and even successors to it, especially in France, as can be seen from Raminagrobis's excellent post on Grasset d'Orcet, and from my own post on Fulcanelli, coming soon. But if Isidore is not a great intellect, he may at least be a magician with words, not quite at Joyce's level, but like Joyce trying to forge his own world with language, discovering significance in unlikely connections, but never content to rest on a single interpretation. As a tool of explanation, Isidore's method is not closed, but an open work. Isidore invites in his student an apophenia—he encourages his reader to see behind every word new words, new thoughts. The Origines thus resembles the kabbalah, although it lacks the profound theology of that art. It is not full of puns. It is full of truths—but truths of a different order to those found in the OED.
The grove is a place set off with thick trees, keeping light away from the ground. The word could also derive from the resplendence of frequent lights, which occur there on account of the pagan religion and worship.
Which is to say, 'The writers of etymologies. . . choose how we should define our world', and moreover to say it with conviction. I go further than Emily Wilson: I say it is a shame that we do not have our own origines.