Issue 139, page 1

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A rerun of an older column in honor of Halloween here in the U.S.

This week, two readers have asked about the word evil.  Efi Gat Mor wondered if it is related to devil but Rebekkah Graves waxed philosophical, thus:

Modern dictionaries only take it back as far as its Old English root yfel, and don't tell of its development. Does it derive from the name of [the biblical character] Eve, as I'm inclined to believe, and does the word wyf ("wife") also derive from the same root? The implications are depressing for women then, if these speculations are true! Does this imply that Eve is the root of all bad stuff that happens?

So then the question is, how do we root out this word, and use another in its place? For, if we continue to use the word, subliminally we continue to blame Eve (and by extension, all of womankind) for any bad stuff that happens.

First of all, let's deal with the etymology.   Evil has quite a different history from that of devil which comes from the Greek diabolos, "slanderer" (literally "one who throws across", from dia-, "across" and ballein, "to throw") while evil (the word, that is, not the "bad stuff that happens") has its origin as the Old English yfel (full marks, Rebekkah).  Evil has cognates in several Germanic languages - Dutch euvel, Old High German ubil and Gothic ubils.  All these are thought to derive from the Old Teutonic root *ubilo(z) which carries the meaning of "up" or "over" implying, in this case, "overstepping the accepted limits".  Wife comes from the Old English wyf, "woman" which has many similar cognates in other languages and, while its ultimate origins are obscure it clearly has no connection with efyl.   As for Eve, it is a Hebrew name (from havva, a variant of hayya, "living").  Cognates of evil existed in Germanic languages long before Christianity (and, hence, the story of Adam and Eve) was introduced to northern Europe.  This alone indicates that there can be no relation between these words.

Now to the really interesting stuff.  There is a widely held belief that the etymology of a word reveals its "real" meaning.  This is just not so.  The etymology of a word simply reveals its origins, not its "true" meaning.   Words simply do not have secret inner meanings.  Meanings are fluid and context-dependent; they are not contained in words but in the minds of those who speak the words.   Both of us (Melanie and Mike) think that we know perfectly well what is meant by green until we try to select upholstery material together.  Our choice of material is not made any simpler by knowing the word's Indo-European roots.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that tax-collector is derived from the Armenian word for hemorrhoid (surprisingly, this assertion is not precisely accurate).  Would this mean that a modern speaker actually means hemorrhoid whenever he says tax-collector, even if he is consciously unaware of this abstruse nugget of etymology?  Surely not.  That would suppose (as Rebekkah implies with her "subliminally") that we all possess a subconscious knowledge of the etymology of each word in our vocabulary.  If this really were the case then readers of Take Our Word For It could just as profitably  take their etymology queries to a psychoanalyst.

To find out what someone really means when they use a word just ask them, "What did you really mean by that?".

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2001 TIERE
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