The abuses of etymology

Originally published April 7, 2o14

Mark Liberman at Language Log has an excellent critique of the statement, tweeted by the BBC World Service, that “The Inuit language doesn’t have a word for freedom, the closest is ‘annakpok’ which means ‘not caught’.”

Applying the same literal interpretation to the English word “free,” we find this:

If phrases like “not caught” seem inadequately abstract or general, it’s worth remembering the etymological history of our own word free — according to the OED the development is from “around” to “one’s own” to “(members of the household who are) one’s own blood (as opposed to slaves)”…

So, if we wanted to pursue the etymological fallacy to its logical conclusion in this case, we’d have to admit that the English concept of freedom is inextricably xenophobic, meaning something like “the state of being a privileged insider”.

In contrast, the Romance forms derived from Latin libertas “liberty” and liber “free” derive from an Indo-European root *lewdʰ-o- that apparently also gave us Latin libido “pleasure, unlawful or inordinate desire, passion, caprice, wilfulness, wantonness”, Greek λιφ- “to desire”, English libertine, etc. So we can add (misleadingly but not without philological justification) that liberty is etymologically the pursuit of selfish pleasure. (Alas, lewd is not from the same source…)

In comparison, “not caught” seems pretty reasonable, as does the Chinese 自由 (zì yóu), which in Literary Sinitic was originally “self + follow/from/due to”, i.e., “deriving from self”, implying “to make decisions for oneself”, “to be one’s own master”, “to take one’s own initiative”, “not to be constrained and restricted”.

So, what are we to make of all this? Well, any number of things. But first and foremost, to me, is the danger of casual study; facts without wisdom. Casual study emphasizes differences: differences between modernity and the past; differences between Anglo-American culture and the cultures of Native Americans, Asians, Africans, etc.

Another example: I heard a story, about a tribe, native to Africa. Instead of using directions North, South, East, West, like us God-fearing white folks do, they navigated in relation to a local lake, and this was supposed to show their backwards, limited viewpoint, I guess.

Except, it’s not the natives whose viewpoint is limited; it’s people who think they can judge somebody they never met based on that anecdote. As a resident of West Michigan, I may use words like “east” and west”, but I am thinking “away from the lake” and “towards the lake,” just like that supposed tribe.

At one point, I may have been able to convince myself that I held in my head the true cardinal directions. Then I moved to Michigan City, where the lake was north, and all bets were off.

The real world doesn’t have a compass rose and north at the top. It has landmarks, and we use them. It has words, that evolve from one meaning to another, and we use them, too; often without any understanding of their “deeper meaning” that some foreign reporter is just dying to tell her audience.