25 May, 2006

Words and coins

Thumbing through the Greek New Testament, I stumbled on the word thesauros, referring often to a storeroom, but here to the caskets containing the three gifts of the Magi. The word comes [or not—see LH's comment below] from the superproductive root the-, 'to set or place' (indicative form ti-themi), which produces a similar development in apo-théke (apothecary), ie. an area where goods are 'placed out'. I had been dimly aware of this word as the origin both of thesaurus and treasure, but had never given it much heed. Now I consider Peter Roget choosing a metaphor for his gigantic store of synonyms, and the image suggests to me the famous kenning from Beowulf, where the hero 'wordhord onleac', or 'unlocked his word-hoard'. The symbolic association between language and money (or goods) is ancient; no doubt there are entire books and articles about this very metaphor. An early example is Horace's statement (Ars Poetica, ll. 58-59) that
licut semperque licebit
signatum praesente nota producere nomen


It is lawful and it will always be lawful
to produce word(s) marked according to what is presently known.
The idiom is really one of stamping currency, as all translators have understood: 'stamped with the 'mint-mark' of the present coinage'. Another well-known example is from Hobbes' Latin Leviathan, ch. 4, translated here:
fools treat [words] like coins, the value of which depends on their being stamped with some famous name, like that of Aristotle, or Cicero, or Aquinas, or any other merely human authority.
There are countless other examples. Even today we speak of 'coining' words, and of expressions having 'currency'. The core notion is of a token not valued for itself (despite coins originally being gold and silver), but which can be exchanged 'symbolically' for desired items—food, meaning. As such, it reveals a common conception of language, expressed yesterday here by Gawain, as merely a means of communication, even as a barrier to be transcended, a necessary evil. This position tends towards a devaluation of language itself (though I do not accuse my interlocutor himself of this devaluation), and of literary forms which delight in (ornate) language at the expense of meaning. For me, one of the key literary problems is the creation of new words and metaphors, and the tendency towards obscurity of expression. As Leo Spitzer observed on the subject of fantastical language in Rabelais, 'Tout néologisme participe évidemment des deux domaines: d'un côté, il prend racine dans le patrimoine acquis de la langue dont il doit suivre les schémas, d'autre part il s'élance dans le terrain vague de l'inexistant'. The analogy of coinage must here break down: an individual cannot introduce new currency into a society, whereas certain individuals in certain circumstances can coin new words, metaphors and expressions. In this light, language seems not so much a conventional activity, as a creative one; no longer a transparent vessel of meaning, it becomes thick, opaque, and fascinating—almost literally.

[Update: kind words about Conrad from Gawain, who has a great post here on Polish neologisers.]


language said...

Actually, thesaurus has no known etymology. The initial the- is certainly reminiscent of tithemi, and the ancient Greeks may well have felt a connection, but you can't get from one to the other by any known method of Greek or IE derivation.

Conrad H. Roth said...

OK, I stand corrected; thanks.

Andrew W. said...

Funny, this nexus of posts - Herder, language as communication, and an essay I was reading just yesterday as my son fell asleep...

The essay is by the Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking called "How, Why, When and Where did Language Go Public?" - he discusses Herder (and Hamann) extensively, and talks about the changes in what people thought language was for between Hobbes and now.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Sounds good; I'll have to read it. Where is the essay found (free-standing, in a collection, in a journal)?

Andrew W. said...

Sorry, I meant to include where you can find it. I know it from his collection of essays entitled Historical Ontology.

It's a nice collection, but if you'd rather just read the article it's in Common Knowledge 1.2 (1992) on pages 74-91.

He's a wonderful writer and a great philosopher, who manages somehow to straddle the continental/analytic divide in such a way as to garner praise from both camps (I can't think of anyone else who could claim this).

I highly recommend reading more of him!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, I'll have a look at it when I get back to a university library in August.

Anonymous said...

You should check out the books of Marc Shell for more about money and literature.

helensotiriadis said...

thesaurus comes directly from the ancient greek word, θησαυρός, meaning treasure or treasury. it's been used continuously up to modern greek and is in use today.

John Cowan said...

We call by the name of 'money' whatever is the most exchangeable thing in a given culture or context. I can try to introduce something as money, but it only becomes money if it catches on. A hundred years ago in the U.S., the only money was U.S. government coins and paper, because neither bank cheques nor letters of credit were effective outside the city where the bank on which they were drawn was located. Now, coins and paper are only used for small transactions, illegal ones, and international ones.

Similarly, individuals can coin new words, it's true, but they get currency only in the same way currency does: anyone can try to introduce a new word, but it's not really part of the language unless it catches on.