If you’ve actually read the one paper I have posted under my “Academic” tab, you may have picked up on the fact that I’m a language geek. My B.A. is in linguistics with a minor in Latin, a course of study which also gave me opportunity to study some Greek, German, French, and the science of linguistic history. My Ed.M. veered off into language development, so I don’t have as many opportunities to pour through dictionaries and ponder how humans as a species have come to construe ideas. I miss this work greatly, so I’m going to embark upon this endeavor of bringing you an inside look at words the way I think about them (i.e., in pieces and in some depth). You can expect 3-5 posts each week on word and their bits.
Most people who know this word know it with its confusing nemesis “entomology.” The first is, of course, the study of words. The second, the study of bugs. If you survived high school science, there’s a pretty good chance that you also recall that “-(o)logy,” coming from the ancient Greek word that described just about everything having to do with the connection of thought to speech and history (logos), is roughly translated as “the study of.” From that basic knowledge, you can easily deduce that “entom-” has something to do with bugs and “etym-” has something to do with words.
That assumption is not wrong, but it’s not very interesting either.
Let’s start with the words. “Etym-” comes from the ancient Greek word etumon, which means “true sense of a word.” This, however, is a connotative sense of a specific form of the word etumos, which doesn’t have anything to do with words. Etumos simply means “true.” “Etymology” could reasonably translate to “the knowledge of that which is true.”
In etymology, as you just saw me do, the path to truth is strewn with word parts. To get to the original meanings behind a word, we cut words into little pieces and pick the pieces apart. And this is where it gets really interesting…guess what “entom-” means? I’ll give you two hints: the word means about the same thing as its Latin-derived counterpart “insect” and is related to the oft-parsed “atom.” That’s right, folks: “entom-” can be cut into “en-” (“in”) and “tom-” (cut), making “entomology” read “the knowledge of that which is cut into.”
The fact that the segmented nature of bugs bodies was the salient quality for naming the study and the fact that the truth was the important thing for words is most likely not mere happenstance, but a whimsy of human culture might have swapped the two words and their meanings without much effort. Had swarms of insects been vital to the oracles in divining Truth, we could easily be talking about the entomology of words here. We may chuckle kindly and correct newbies who confuse the two words, but the gulf between words and lightning bugs is not as wide as you might think where language is concerned.
And that’s why I’m bringing you The Not-Quite-Daily Etymologist.