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Healthy Disrespect for Authority

There's an idea from Gene Wolfe's essay Words Weird and Wonderful that has had a fairly large influence on me, which is that you don't have to be a professional linguist (or whatever) to make valid observations about the history and structure of language, and that, conversely, not all observations by professionals are valid. Don't get me wrong—it does help to know things, and certainly a dedicated professional linguist knows a lot more than I do, but it's still more fun to think that you can do it yourself.

When generalized from linguistics to cover all kinds of professionalism, this same idea turns into a healthy disrespect for authority.

Here are the parts of Wolfe's essay that contain the idea.

For that matter, even philologists and lexicographers make mistakes. Dictionaries are written by human beings, after all. That business about portreeves being associated with seaports will be found in several good dictionaries, put there by lexicographers who have forgotten that porta once meant a gate or door. (A seaport is a gate to the sea; an airport, a gate to the air; spaceports, when we get them, will be gates to space.)


If this essay has interested you in the origin of words, remember that a derivation isn't necessarily correct just because somebody, myself included, has gotten it into print. When Dr. Johnson wrote the first dictionary, he included the guess that curmudgeon came from the French coeur méchant—“wicked heart”—and credited it to “an unknown correspondent.” Later, a Dr. Ash ripped Johnson off, deriving curmudgeon from coeur, “unknown,” mechant, “correspondent.” (My own guess is that it's from cur muggins, which would be pretty good 18th century slang for snarling fool. But that's only a guess.)

By the way, I happened to notice that the essay also contains the following, and so may be partly or completely responsible for my choice of the name “urticator”.

URTICATE Whip with the branches of a poisonous plant.

My own favorite etymology is for the word “procrastinate”, which is Latin (of course, since that's all I know about) and breaks down into the three components “pro”, “cras”, and “teneo”, literally meaning “hold for tomorrow”. My dictionary backs me up on the “for tomorrow” part, but the inclusion of “teneo”, “I hold”, is my own idea. It doesn't quite fit perfectly, because the verb ending has changed from second to first conjugation, but I'd still bet on it.


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  Useless Words

@ April (2000)