Thursday, August 05, 2010

About Etymology and Misusing "Enormity"

English is a delightful language with a rich history. Its influences include ancient Greek Latin--and its Romantic offspring, especially French--and various Germanic languages going back to the Angles, Saxons, and other Germanic nations who conquered England (literally "Land of the Angles"). Minor additions from Hebrew , Old Norse, and even Arabic have made themselves a part of the lexicon. Individual words from dozens--perhaps most--other languages also roll comfortably off our tongues.

What follows is a brief--excruciatingly brief--look at how the English language has borrowed from other languages. I will conclude, however, with a look at a particular error in usage--an error based upon etymological ignorance.

The ancient Greek contribution is most plain in many of our medical and scientific terms, words as
photograph--literally "light painting" or "light writing" --hemophiliac--literally "blood lover" ). All of our phobias (e.g., agoraphobia--"fear of public places") are ancient Greek, as are our --ologies (e.g., psychology--"logic or study of the mind").

Latin is similarly important to medicine and science. Ars medicina is the "art of healing," and science, from scientia, literally means "knowledge." Latin is also the language of the law. If you're ever arrested, you will thank the framers of our Constitution for ensuring the writ of habeus corpus--writing (i.e. court order) to show "
that you have the body [the subject person under detention]"--otherwise you can be kept imprisoned indefinitely without a trial. The abbreviations i.e. and e.g., which I use frequently, are from Latin.

Both ancient Greek and Latin show up in regular words: hydration, democracy, and hypocrite (to name only a few) are Greek; dictator, aquatic, automatic, benefit even et cetera are Latin. Even new forms of expression base themselves often in these ancient languages, especially
modern additions owing to technical advances (who used the word "text"--a word formed from the Latin noun textus-- as a verb twenty years ago?).

French and Germanic influences are everywhere. Most every day English words come from the period dating from when the Norman French conquered the Anglo-Saxons of England and imposed their (Latin based) language.

I live in a house. My wife's Austrian relatives, who obviously speak German, live in a haus. French is so closely tied to English that I use French phrases without even thinking about it: (e.g., bon appétit, à la carte, c'est la vie). Many of our Latin words came to us through French variations. I say cathedral, and Pierre says cathédrale. Both of us mean "large church." Cicero, however, used the word cathedra for "seat," and this is where our French-based usage derives, for Ecclesiastical Latin adopted cathedra to identify a bishop's "seat." Of course English isn't the only language to borrow. The Latin cathedra is from the Ancient Greek kathedra (καθέδρα).
I bid farewell by saying "Goodbye," a variation of the Middle English "God be with ye." God from the Germanic Gott. Be may be related to the Germanic sie--I say may be because I don't know it as a fact. With obviously comes from the Germanic mitt, and ye--or you--from the German du.

So an English-speaker says "Goodbye," meaning "God be with you,"which translates directly into the German Gott sie mit dir. Dir is the object form of the subject du, but in English you stays the same in its subject and object forms. If the German did similarly, "God be with you" would translate into "Gott sie mitt du." This common English expression is clearly Germanic in origin.

But what strikes me by our expression "Goodbye"--rooted in "God be with you," is that almost the exact same expression is used to say farewell in Spanish and French--both of which are most influenced by Latin.

Many of our words and phrases are not just verbally borrowed in the sense of similar words, but even our idioms cross over.

I say "God be with you," but Juan says "Adios"--to God--and Jean Claude Van Damme says "Adieu" (just before he knocks me out with a round-house--or is that roundhaus?).

Most of our Spanish words originated in Latin. Nonetheless, there's some cross over with German (I presume due to the Gothic invasions/settlements). Guerrilla means "little war," which we use with a bit of redundancy in "Guerrilla war" ("Little war-war"?). The Spanish Guerra (don't pronounce the "G"), meaning "war," is from the High German werra or middle Dutch warre.

The Latin influence is similar in Italian. If you've been classically trained to play an instrument, then you know more than a few Italian words and expressions.

From Hebrew we have amen, hallelujah, and other religious terms.

Yiddish, a fusion of languages including German and Hebrew, gives us schmuck, schlemiel, schlimazel (but not
Hasenpfeffer Incorporated).

Even non-Western languages have found places in our speech. If I'm watching a football game, and I note that number 82 rammed into the receive team's wedge as a kamikaze, I've used a Japanese word. Kamikaze means "divine wind," but it was the title applied to Japanese pilots who sacrificed their lives by crashing bomb-laden planes into American ships. In English, we use the word kamikaze in the latter, historical but non-literal sense.

And it is in this regard that I finally make my point. Using kamikaze in a way that ignores a personal disregard for one's safety is not appropriate. In the football example, my use of the word kamikaze is hyperbolic. While number 82 may indeed have been risking his health, he was neither homicidal nor suicidal. It's a fine line I'm walking when I make such exaggerations, for I run the risk of diluting an otherwise strong and specific word.

What's next? I remark that Jeff Gordon win races because he drives like a kamikaze? I use kamikaze to describe my dog chasing a rabbit?

Before long, the word becomes merely a synonym for reckless or recklessly. Later still, it may simply be another way of saying quick or quickly.

This is exactly what happened to the word awesome, a word that we use nowadays interchangeably with cool or great and the like. Nonetheless, the word is rooted in awe, which means to overwhelm with reverence and dread. To awe is to inspire respect and fear. It's not simply an exaggerated word meaning "impress." We stand in awe of God because God is awesome. In one word, awesome, we confess that God is great and fearsome--to the extent that we have no further modifiers. Something is awesome when it is so magnificent, so wonderful, so great that no words or descriptions suffice.Similarly, something is awful when no other word or words will adequately describe its iniquity or foulness.

Yet the last time you used awesome, you probably meant hardly more than "really neat."

That's what happens to words and language when people do not use them properly. We think in words. Your reactions to these stated opinions are now forming themselves into words, and you can hear those words in your mind. Maybe you've even muttered a few under your breath. Therefore, whatever weakens the language weakens our ability to think. As our words mean less, so do our thoughts.

When you see a person butchering the language, know that he is butchering your ability to think abstractly. He is engaged actively in a quest to reduce us to a lower order of animal.

Then again, I'm most likely not being fair. If all you've ever heard is a bastardization of a word, then how can I blame you for it? Well, you're reading this, so now you know. Our words have meaning, and sometimes those meanings reach far back into history. Knowing this, you must be careful.

Recently, an article in the Detroit Free Press misused the word "enormity."

Regarding Hansen Clarke's victory over Carolyn "Cheeks" Kilpatrick, a supposedly literate and educated journalist wrote,
Twelve hours after a stunning upset of incumbent U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a weary and emotional Hansen Clarke began to feel the enormity of what he accomplished Tuesday. [emphasis added]

Above, the author uses "enormity" to express the importance (or enormousness) of Clark's election: "a weary and emotional Hansen Clarke began to feel the enormity of what he accomplished."

Enormity, however, means "profound wickedness." It is not rooted in enormous, and should not be used to express magnitude; rather it is related to normitivity (relating to standards or morals) it's Latin original enormitatem, meaning "a divergence from standards (i.e. morals)."

I do not think that the author means to say that what Clarke has done is wicked, so it should be revised to "the enormousness of what he accomplished" or "the magnitude of what he accomplished."

But it won't be revised. Most people will think that I'm merely a whiner. I knew what the author meant, so I should just leave it at that, right?

For those who hold that opinion, I have a pair of words. And although they're based on German words, most people preface them with "Pardon my French."


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