Etymology: Who Cares?

During my predawn walk this morning, I was listening to a wonderful Great Courses series of lectures on the History of the English Language. In Lecture 28, titled “Values, Words, and Modernity,” Professor Seth Lehrer of the University of Chicago makes an observation about the importance of exploring and understanding where our words come from. Max Müller, a nineteenth-century philologist, became more and more convinced through his comparative studies of many languages that the words themselves have stories to tell. They are not merely neutral vehicles for concepts and propositions. Words themselves have narrative meaning, which we can discover by looking at where the word came from, how it was used in the evidence we have from the past, and how it developed into its meaning and usage today.

Once you explore the story of a word, that word will mean more to you than it has ever meant before. Knowing the historical context of a word adds another layer of meaning to our understanding of that word here and now.

Once you know the etymology of a word, once you know its transformation over time, it’s hard to use that word in the same way again, as you had before.

That’s why, if we care about truth (whether we capitalize it or not), we’ve got to care about the story behind the word itself, as well as the story of the concepts it expresses, and the word (or words) used in various languages for the same or similar concepts, especially those languages from which we translate.

We saw a little of that in my previous post last night, picking apart the Greek word aletheia, used by the New Testament authors and which we translate as “truth.” Of course, our present-day understanding also depends a lot on Latin, the language which with which much of our theology and doctrine developed (at least in Western Christianity), and Hebrew, which we might call the source language for how we think and talk about God and all that relates to God.

Complex? Yes.  But also an invitation to adventure.

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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