Etymology and Entomology

I was going to write a post or two about editing classical texts, and I’ll get back to that sometime soon, but I thought I’d take a break and just talk about some words. This post is part of a group I think of as etymological entertainments. I love etymology. Etymology was maybe the first part of philology that attracted me, long before I knew the word philology. Even when I was in grade school I was a word fiend, and my relatives (particularly my mother’s mother) would give me word books for Christmas presents. I still have some of them: “Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins”, “The Romance of Words”, “A Browser’s Dictionary”, “Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories”, and so on. Later on I started reading more systematic and scholarly treatments of words and language, but the foundation of my philological career was these Christmas presents from my Grandmother.

If I’m going to talk about etymology I should start with the etymology of etymology. This word is not part of the Germanic word stock, the core vocabulary of English. It’s a constructed word, put together from a couple of Greek roots, “etymos” and “logos”. In ancient Greek, “etymos” is an adjective meaning “true”, but the form “etymon”, as a noun, also had a more specialized (and fairly rare) meaning, “the true meaning of a word”. The Greek word “logos” is complicated, but used as a suffix in this way it means “the study of something”, as in geology (the study of the earth, ge-) or psychology (the study of the psyche), and so on.

So the word “etymology” originally meant “the study of the true meaning of a word”, with the idea that the original meaning of a word was its true meaning. That’s not generally true. The meaning of a word is whatever meaning it has whenever it’s being used. The word “etymology” itself illustrates this principle. The original meaning of “etymology” was “the study of the true meaning of words”, but in current usage, “etymology” is the study of the history of words, both their form and their meaning. Etymology can shed interesting light on what words mean and how they got to mean what they mean, but the current meaning of a word is determined by its current use. For instance, the English word “meat” used to mean food in general, as in the phrase “meat and drink”, but today if you say you don’t eat meat, you don’t mean that you abstain from food in general. The word “deer” used to mean animals in general, and Shakespeare uses it that way—it’s related to the German word “Tier” which still means “animal” in general.

The word “etymology” is easily confused with the word “entomology”, which is the study of insects. The etymology of entomology is interesting, but it invites a somewhat roundabout journey—trust me, I’ll get to the end in due time. “Entomology” is made up of three Greek words—“logos”, which I mentioned above, and the preposition “en”, which means “in”, and the root “tom–”, which has to do with cutting. The root “tom” also shows up as “tem” and even “tm”. These three forms are the three vowel grades of the word. I will talk about vowel gradation in another post sometime, but for now it’s enough to say that many IndoEuropean roots show up as a few consonants with different vowels inserted. The three basic roots are the e-grade (as in “tem”), the o-grade (as in “tom”) and the zero grade (as in “tm”). Many of the so called strong verb forms in English (“sing, sang, sung”; “drink, drank, drunk”, and so on) derive from these grades. The history of vowel gradation gets pretty complicated, and I will leave further comment for another time.

In ancient Greek the e-grade “tem” shows up in the verb “temnô”, which means “to cut”; it also shows up in the Greek word “temenos”, which meant a section of land cut off, such as a field, but particularly a section dedicated to a god. Many etymologists say that the IndoEuropean root “tem” is the root of the Latin word “templum”, from which we get the English word “temple”, in the sense of a religious building. The e-grade also shows up in the English word “contemplate”, which originally meant something like “to mark out a special place for observation of omens”; it still means a special kind of thought. 

The o-grade “tom” shows up in words such as the Greek noun “tomê”, which means “something which has been cut”, for instance “a tree stump”, and the adjective “tomos”, which means “sharp”. The noun form “tomos” meant “a slice” but also “a part of a book”, and that’s where we get the English word “tome”. The o-grade also shows up in the English words “anatomy”, which originally meant “cutting up a body to see its parts”, but now means the body’s structure; “atom”—the initial “a” in “atom” is a negative, so an atom, in its original meaning, was something that couldn’t be divided—the splitting of the unsplitable atom was one of the basic achievements of modern physics; “dichotomy”, which means to cut something into two parts; and “epitome”—“epi” is the Greek preposition “epi”, which means “into”, so an epitome originally cut a discussion up into its parts, but now it means an abridgement or something that is a typical example of something; and there are a number of medical terms which use the form “tom”, as in “apendectomy” or “tracheotomy” or “tomography”.

The zero-grade form “tm” shows up in a few Greek words, but so far as I know, in just one English word, “tmesis”, which means something like “the cutting up of a word and inserting something in between the parts”; my example I stole from H. L. Menken: “The problem with you is that you’re too inde-goddam-pendent.”

If you put the Greek word “en” together with “tom–”, you get the Greek noun “entomê”, which means “a slit or an incision”; also the adjective “entomos”, which means “cut into pieces”, which also has the neuter plural “entoma”, which means, lo and behold, “insects”, though this word is used only by Aristotle and a few other scientific writers. Clearly our word “entomology” comes from this Greek word for insects. But why would insects be called “entoma”, that is, “things with an incision”? Well, the body of an insect comes in three distinct parts: the head, the thorax, and the abdomen. This structure is most obvious in an ant, where you can easily see the narrow bits dividing the three body parts, but this tripartite structure is a general feature of insect morphology. And in fact our word “insect” is just the Latin version of the same idea—it comes from the Latin verb “insectare”, “to cut into parts”. Evidently Pliny the Elder (who wrote scientific works in the first century AD and who died when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD) used “insectum” as a direct translation of Aristotle’s “entoma”. The word “insect” is an everyday word in English, whereas “entomology” is a specialized term, but they are really just the Latin and Greek expressions of the same idea.

There are various ways to do etymology, and I like all of them. You can focus on individual words and track down their individual histories—that’s the method of most of the books my Grandmother gave me. Or you can take a very scientific approach and look at the phonological laws deduced by linguists. Or you can use the method (if you can call it a method) that I have used here, and will use in some other posts, which is based on the idea that words are connected to each other in vast associative networks. If you pick a word that seems interesting and then follow its associations, in a totally adventitious way, you discover all kinds of unexpected delights.

3 thoughts on “Etymology and Entomology

  1. What fun! So much good stuff here. I’m glad to know “tmesis.” All the examples that come to (my) mind involve expletives (a word I expect is part of another interesting associative network). I’m now curious about other possibilities.

    Liked by 1 person

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