June 18, 2005

Etymology as argument

Some linguistic myths are durable because they're useful: the Eskimos have an extraordinary number of different words for snow; the Chinese word for crisis is made up of the words for danger and opportunity; and so on. These myths are useful in part because they exemplify attractive ideas: language reflects experience and influences thought; acute problems can lead to new solutions. The linguistic truth of the matter is beside the point.

Geoff Pullum has observed that the Eskimo vocabulary hoax is frequently evoked in a particular rhetorical pattern: If the Eskimos have N words for snow, then the <members of group X> must have <even more than N> words for <things in some semantic field stereotypically associated with group X>. An email yesterday from Carrie Shanafelt drew my attention to a different rhetorical device that is also a common motivation for linguistic fantasy.

Carrie's example came from an episode of Oprah featuring adult women who described being raped by their fathers.

It was horrific and gruesome and I wondered how any of these women could get through each day without committing patricide. Then Oprah asked T.D. Jakes, of Potter's Touch Ministries, to explain how a person could ever get past a betrayal that awful. He said, "The word 'forgiveness,' in Greek, is the same word as 'to exhale.'" The whole audience gave a long sigh together, as if that explained everything.

Oprah (herself a victim of incestual rape) wasn't buying it. "Forgiveness is a pretty complex word in a situation in which you already love and trust your rapist. The desire to forgive can also be the desire to blame yourself and not be able to confront what's happened." (This bit is paraphrased, but her argument was along these lines.)

The weird thing was that everyone seemed to disagree with Oprah, something no one wants to do. Once Jakes pulled out the "forgiveness in Greek" (a language which the audience probably associates with the Bible, democracy, and ancient philosophy) line, it was all over for the case that these women should be hunting their dads down with lawsuits (or crossbows). I'm a rhetorician, not a linguist, and it seemed as though this little linguistic flourish of useless (or false) knowledge has somehow become quite a successful rhetorical device. I suspect this device grew up in the church, where it was probably born in legitimate word-study sermons for congregations who don't know Hebrew or Greek. Strong's Numbers can seem massively important when you first look at them.

The form of this rhetorical trope seems to be:

In <language X>, the word for <concept Y> is based on the word for <concept Z> (or perhaps, a combination of the words for <concept Z1> and <concept Z2>). Therefore, in order to understand <concept Y>, you should think in terms of <concept Z>, recognizing the deep traditional wisdom inherent in the lexicographic history of <language X>.

As John McWhorter pointed out with respect to the Mohawk word for justice, this is not an impressive philosophical argument even when its premises are true. Word meanings drift and mutate so widely that an argument of this form can be constructed, from valid examples in some language or another, for just about any pair of concepts. But as Carrie observes, the force of the argument seems to depend on the audience's willingness to accord a certain prestige or authority to the linguistic traditions in question, and so languages like Greek, Hebrew, Chinese and so on are often favored choices. Also, there are no reference works in which one can easily find a language in which the word for X is derived from the word for Y, for an arbitrary X/Y pair of interest. As a result, no appropriate and genuine etymology or usage may come to hand, and so people make one up, or at least to force some bits of lexicographic truth into a harness of falsehood.

T.D. Jakes' form of this little argument, as reported by Carrie, is that in Greek, forgiveness is exhaling. The implication, I guess, is that respiration is necessary to life, and involves a natural cycle of breathing in and breathing out; in the same way, psychic health requires a natural cycle of anger and forgiveness. Or something like that.

I'll guess that Jakes was talking about the Greek word aphesis, from aphiêmi "to send forth, discharge". Liddell and Scott give this set of glosses (put into a single list -- see the entry at Perseus for details and citations):

letting go, release; of persons, dismissal; quittance from murder; discharge from a bond; exemption from attendance, leave of absence; exemption from service; remission of a debt; forgiveness; relaxation, exhaustion; divorce; starting of horses in a race; hence, starting-post itself; metaph., the first start, beginning of anything; discharge, emission; discharge, release of an engine; release; hence, in concrete sense, conduit, sluice;

Forgiveness is in there, but breathing out is not (though it wouldn't be a surprise to find that word whose basic meaning is "letting go" was used at some point to refer to exhalation). I doubt that Jakes could have won any converts by saying "The word forgiveness, in Greek, is the same word as letting go." Bringing in breathing out evokes the natural inevitability of a cycle essential to life. You can't hold your breath forever; sooner or later you have to forgive.

It's important to distinguish this argument-by-metaphor from the common argument-from-word-history, where we try to shed some light on a concept or institution by examining the history of the terms used to refer to it. Here the historical facts are at least relevant to the topic under discussion, and the audience is free to take them for whatever they may be worth.

In the case of the argument-by-metaphor-from-a-random-language, the only point is to offer some authority for an interpretative frame that ought to stand or fall on its own merits. The alleged patterns of Greek word usage aren't relevant to Jakes' argument about forgiveness as exhaling. If Jakes were right about aphesis, it shouldn't help his case. The fact that he's wrong (at least for classical Greek) shouldn't harm it -- maybe he's right about forgiveness in Lappish or Tibetan or Pottawatomi. But Carrie has put her finger on a rhetorical truth: lexicographical exegesis is usually an effective way to introduce an interpretive frame. At some level, we all believe that etymology is destiny.

[By the way, the Strong's Numbers that Carrie mentions are "numbers given to words in the Bible by Dr. James Strong for his Exhaustive Concordance, first published in 1890". You can explore the system in detail here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 18, 2005 11:05 AM