July 11, 2005

(Hallucinatory) etymology as argument

Clare Girvan spotted another example of (false) etymology as argument, following up on earlier LL posts:

Essentials of Faith - a current UK TV programme about comparative religion - interviewed Leo Rutherford, a Shamanic Practitioner. He justified the use of hallucinogenic drugs in religious ritual on the grounds that "'hallucinogenic' comes from the word 'hallowed'".

Nice try, Leo. But the AHD sez the etymology of hallucinate is

Latin hallūcinārī, hallūcināt-, to dream, be deceived, variant of ālūcinārī.

whereas hallow is from

Middle English halwen, from Old English hālgian.

The trail diverges further as we track back past Old English and Classical Latin. The AHD suggests that hālgian comes from the Indo-European root kailo, meaning "whole, uninjured, of good omen", whose other current reflexes in English include hale, whole, wassail, holy, halibut, holiday and hollyhock. And according to Lewis & Short, ālūcĭnor means

to wander in mind, to talk idly, prate, dream

and is "[prob. from aluô, alussô; alê, alukê; cf. Gell. 16, 12, 3]", which are Greek words referring to uneasiness or restlessness or wandering, especially of people who are sick.

So Leo would have been etymologically (if not logically) correct in supporting the use of halibut in religious rituals, but for magic mushrooms he'll have to look to other arguments.

Curiously, my fingers insist on typing hallucinate as hallunicate. Probably due to -- oh, never mind.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 11, 2005 07:18 AM