Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Do not use etymology to determine current meaning of a word

It may sound obvious. When you want to know the meaning of a word, you look it up in a dictionary and check the definitions, probably with some examples. Only if you're interested in its origin will you check its etymology. But in reality, we see that a lot of people trying to explain the connotations or nuances of meanings of a word resort to etymology. For example, in my 2017 blog 自由: "freedom" or "liberty"?, I criticized those who rack their brains trying to come up with certain semantic differences between freedom and liberty while there is none (although which word is more customarily used in which set phrase exhibits a difference in frequency).

Recently, in a Weibo posting, a Chinese blogger tried to justify his translation of draconian as "惨无人道" ("inhumanely atrocious"). He was reading the following passage of an MIT Technology Review article Every country wants a covid-19 vaccine. Who will get it first?,

"By then, though, China had a different problem: not enough covid-19. Its draconian lockdown measures had quashed the virus at home so effectively that doctors couldn’t find patients to fully test their vaccine on."

His comment is, "这里特别用到一个极其恶毒的词语叫draconian,可以翻译为惨无人道" ("An extremely vicious word is used here called draconian, which can be translated as inhumanely atrocious"). When other readers pointed out to him that his understanding of this word was incorrect, he justified his interpretation by finding the origin of draconian, which is the Athenian lawmaker named Draco, known for making harsh laws.

So much for this story. Let's re-read the renowned linguist Thomas Pyles's frequently quoted statement that "[t]here is a widespread belief, held even by some quite learned people, that the way to find out what a word means is to find out what it previously meant — or, preferably, if it were possible to do so, what it originally meant--a notion similar to the Greek belief in the etymon... such an appeal to etymology to determine present meaning is as unreliable as would be an appeal to spelling to determine modern pronunciation." (The Origins and Development of the English Language, 1964 ed., pp304-5). Not heeding this warning, we would say calculate only if we were to count pebbles because calculate comes from Latin calx ("stone"), and we would either quarantine potential SARS-CoV-2 virus carriers for 40 instead of 14 days or flatly refuse to use the word quarantine because the word inherently meant "forty".

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