The Practice of Etymology

Taking the conceptual methodology developed previously, I would like to return to the matter of etymology employed as practice, as in the first entry here.

Etymology, viewed through the Deleuzian lens, does not reveal the truth of a word as such; it does not reveal any objective meaning. But, as a conceptual method of inquiry, etymology allows us to untangle the network of relations that constitutes the content of any given sign, and perhaps draw new conclusions based on our inquiry.

As I have said, the word—that is, the linguistic sign—functions in procession. It is always already accompanied, always already moving, always already a process. And so we find in the word the juncture of two axes, the syntagmatic and paradigmatic, which Saussure outlines in his Course in General Linguistics, a juncture which allows for the peculiar union of fixity and flux that we find in our speech. The word means by virtue of its given content, its relatively fixed meaning as agreed upon by the community and legislated in our dictionaries; but the word also means by virtue of its relations, both differential and categorical, and its movement in the chain of these relations as it is actively used. Thus, such a phrase as “the boy wrote an essay” means in two different ways—syntagmatically, through the grammatical linkage of subject and predicate, and paradigmatically, through the choice of particular words: boy not girl or man, wrote not read or burned, essay not book or poem. It means because we know, by definition, what boys and writing and essays are, and it also means, because we know how the words boy and writing and essay differ from other words and their relations to them. This is the signifying chain, the interlocking ways of meaning that together constitute the network, the procession, of the word. This is a basic point of semiotic theory, but a necessary one.

Etymology as practice, then, helps us to trace lineages of definition and to disentangle the complex web of differences that forms the paradigmatic content of a word. In our conceptual deployment of it, etymology, which can itself be etymologically defined as “the study of the true sense of a word” (etymon = true sense; logia = study of), differs from itself, a useful illustration of our method. If etymology purports to study the “true sense” of words, but the “sense” of a word is not reducible to any objective essence and is instead a network of relations and a process by which new networks of relations are generated, recursively building on each other, then the study with which etymology is concerned finds its object to be different than originally conceived. The object, the sign, has shifted. And yet, the method is not bankrupt; the practice of etymology is not meaningless, despite the lack of essential truth as a characteristic of language. Essence is simply not an applicable descriptor for objects of the linguistic category. This does not mean, however, that truth and meaning are illusions or impossibilities. Instead, we must separate our understanding of truth and meaning from the definition of essence as singular and fixed. The essential truth of language is the essential multiplicity of our words.

Through our conceptual methodology, a rupture with the old system is made possible and a new way of conceiving meaning can be put forward. The old ideology of one word + one meaning is set aside, opening up our etymological practice to new dimensions of meaning that might previously have been inaccessible or even inconceivable. I am not making a new argument here. Shakespeare knew four hundred years ago that the meaning of our words is not fixed. Sonnet 135 is example enough of this. And yet, I feel a necessity in rearticulating the point, am troubled by a real problem that needs to be addressed. The philosopher is responsible for the reality he conceptualizes, and if, indeed, our meanings are not fixed, then we find ourselves faced with both great opportunity and great danger. The movement of our language is a neutral reality—its moral content is a product of its use.

At every moment, with every utterance, we must choose. We can choose to use words like security and safety and strength to push through legislation that closes our borders to refugees, or we can use those same words to extend the security and safety and strength of our community to those outside who desperately need it. We can choose a justice concerned only with punishment, or we can choose a justice that is concerned with goodness and virtue. And we can choose a love that seeks only its own satisfaction, or a love that will lay itself down without question. Our meanings are not guaranteed—they are chosen. That is our responsibility.

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