Etymology, and False Etymology as a Rhetorical Device

Etymology: “An account of, or the facts relating to, the formation or development of a word and its meaning; the process of tracing the history of a word. The original meaning of a word as shown by its etymology” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). For the English language, a majority of etymologies refer to origins in Old English, Germanic Languages, French, Latin and Greek. The origins of the word ‘etymology’ itself are to be found in two Greek roots: ‘etymon’ (true) and logos (word).

It is not essential to know anything at all about etymologies. Most people survive and prosper without even knowing what the word means. Nevertheless, such knowledge (or where to find it: in reliable dictionaries) often proves to be very useful or indispensable to those who deal closely with (or are interested in) the words of a language. An etymological consultation can also help to avoid serious errors and misunderstandings (and sometimes misleading pronunciations). For example, the differences in meaning between the visually and orally similar ‘manually’, ‘manly’ and ‘manic’ are easily explained by their etymologies: respectively from a) the Latin word for hand, b) ‘man’, and c) Greek ‘mania’. Similarly, any suspicion of a common relationship between eschatology / eschatological and scatology / scatological can quickly and safely be dispelled by noting the different Greek roots from which the eschat- (last) and scat- (dung) parts are derived.

The Spreading of False Etymologies

In about 630 CE, a Catholic Archbishop named Isidore of Seville published an important encyclopedic series of books in Latin. This reference work continued to be consulted by European Latin scholars for several centuries. In The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, a recent English translation of this major ecclesiastical work by Stephen A. Barney and three other scholars (Cambridge University Press, 2006), the legendary poor quality of many of the etymologies offered is stressed and suitable samples are offered:

“Horses (equus) are so called because when they were yoked in a team of 4 they were balanced (aequare).” and “Humus (humus) was the material from which the human (homo) was made.” (I quote from a review by Emily Wilson.)

Another excellent example of how badly Isidore dealt with this minor aspect of his magnum opus (because of unreliable sources and, perhaps, lapses in research rigour) is offered by Adrian Murdoch on his typepad blog:

“The walking stick [baculus in Latin] is said to have been invented by Bacchus, the discovered of the grapevine, so that people affected by wine might be supported by it.”

Isidore’s, er, habit has nevertheless prospered in recent eras and in specific areas. There is some interesting evidence that etymological explanations seem attractive as a rhetorical device to prove a point, particularly in preaching, but also in other areas. If the promoters of beliefs are trusted by their readers or audience, impressive-sounding etymological proof will usually be accepted without demur, even if demonstrably false (‘false etymology’). In his book on cults, the Reverend Stephen Wookey refers to research which demonstrates the use of inaccurate quotations and false etymologies used to make a point by such preachers and orators. He quotes a blatant example by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

“The word Adam is from the Hebrew adamah, signifying the red color of the ground dust, nothing new. Divide the name Adam into two syllables [in English!] and it reads, a dam, or obstruction … it stands for obstruction, error, even the supposed separation of man from God and …” (Wookey, p. 338, from line 12 on). Baker Eddy goes on in similar vein, telling us all the negatives that poor Adam “stands for” for half a page. As Rev. Wookey comments: the Hebrew meaning is simply: man.

One of the clumsiest attempts at etymology for religious indoctrination purposes must surely be the one reported by William J. Petersen (Those Curious New Cults, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1973, p. 115). According to Petersen, one of the beliefs subscrtibed to by members of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God was that the British and the Americans are descended from the so-called Lost Tribes of the ancient Jewish people.’ As one of his ‘proofs’ of this peculiar assertion, Armstrong suggested that the word ‘Saxon’ was derived from ‘Isaac’s sons’.

Armstrong’s false etymologies are also dealt with in an easily accessible article, ‘The “Lost Tribes” of Herbert W. Armstrong’, in Catholic Answers Magazine:

Apparently, to further his thesis that the Lost Tribes settled in Britain and America, the preacher wrote a further piece of blatant ‘etymological’ indoctrination:

“The House of Israel is the ‘covenant people’. The Hebrew word for ‘covenant’ is brit. And the word for ‘covenant man’ or ‘covenant people’, would therefore sound, in English word order, ‘Brit-ish’ (the word ish means ‘man’ in Hebrew, and it is also an English suffix on nouns and adjectives). And so, is it mere coincidence that the true covenant people today are called the ‘British’? And they reside in the ‘British Isles’!”

And Armstrong’s disciples swallowed the false etymologies.

The Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba, has also made frequent use of etymologies as a teaching tool. Many of these are unconvincing except to his unquestioning devotees, who consider him to be Omniscient (and he himself has made that claim). For example, SSB has offered his devotees an idiosyncratic etymology of the ‘Sai’ part of the name that he assumed in 1943: ‘Sai Baba’, from Sai Baba of Shirdi – the Muslim/Hindu saint who died 1918 – whose reincarnation he claimed to be:

Sa means ‘Divine’, ai or ayi means ‘mother’ and Baba means ‘father’. The Name indicates Divine Mother and Father …” (Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. XII, 38:229. These Discourses are translated from Telugu and edited by the Sathya Sai Organisation)

On the real etymology of the original Sai Baba, scholars seem to be agreed. As Kevin R. D. Shepherd writes: “Sai is not a Hindu name, but a Persian word indicative of a holy man. It seems to bear an affinity with the Arabic sa’ih, which in the early medieval era of Islam was used to designate itinerant ascetics of sufi background. It appropriately reflects the Muslim background of the subject. ….” (KRDS, 1986, Chapter 2). See also Sathya Sai Baba’s Claim to be the Reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba

In addition to other inventive Sanskrit etymologies for words like Bhagavan, Guru, Hindu, Krishna, etc., Sathya Sai Baba, the alleged polyglot, has occasionally exercised his imagination on foreign terms. For example, here is one of his etymological explanations of Salaam (which most people know as the Arabic greeting: ‘Peace’).

“The Muslims use the term Salaam as a form of greeting. What does the word mean? ‘Sa’ refers to Sai, the Lord who is the embodiment of Truth, Awareness and Bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda); ‘la’ means ‘layam’ (mergence). Salaam means merging in the Supreme, who is also the embodiment of Truth and Bliss.” (Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. XVIII, 30:187)

Notice that in this example, SSB arbitrarily reduces ‘Salaam’ to ‘Sa’ plus ‘la’ (= ‘Sala’) to fit in with his extraordinary self-promotional interpretation.

(I have reported his different etymologies for Allah elsewhere on the Internet.)

More recently, a few writers of highly controversial works on history and archaeology (especially on the Internet) have also shown a preference for creative etymologies and other plays on words and names in order to support their contentious theses. (For the use of False Etymology in politics and propaganda, see the corresponding article in Wikipedia, to which this blog piece may be considered a supplement, at least by non-Wikipedians who do not reject the fruits of personal research.)

Gene D. Matlock, in yet another book on the lost Atlantis, puts forward the theory that there was an Atlantis in or close to Mexico. Part of his proof seems to be that there were Mexican “Sanskrit” place names like Atlán, Tlan or Tollán and that their inhabitants were called Atlantecas. (Those ‘Sanskrit’ names look like ordinary Mexican indigenous names.)

The author of a sensational best-selling book about a putative Chinese fleet which circumnavigated the globe in 1421-1423 (Gavin Menzies) offers as one of his exhibits news of an alleged inscription found in the Cape Verde islands. Menzies apparently attributes this to the Chinese Admiral Zheng He, but a critic ( reveals (among many other inconvenient details) that Menzies himself admits that the inscription turned out to be written in the southern Indian language, Malayalam.

And finally, for now, a much-argued Internet thesis that there is a connection between Abraham and his wife Sarah and Hindu God Brahma and his consort Saraswati (“Sarai-svati” in this case) seems to have foundered on Wikipedia for lack of solid evidence and partly because “a major hole in this hypothesis is that Hebrew is not an Indo-European language, and that the etymologies for each word [offered as proof] are fairly different.”

(See Wikipedia Discussion page for ‘Brahma’; User: ‘Gizza’.)

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