March 03, 2008

Ornamental etymology

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday, Adam Freedman (Legal Lingo columnist for the New York Law Journal Magazine) takes on an exchange between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over whether Obama should be "rejecting" or (instead) "denouncing" Louis Farrakhan.  Freedman observes that the two verbs are not interchangeable and shows how they work differently in the Farrakhan context.  I have nothing much to add to this discussion, but my attention was caught by Freedman's making two digressions into etymology:

"Denounce," which comes from the Latin nuntiare ("to make known") and is thus related to such words as "announce" and "pronounce," means "to declare a person or thing to be wicked or evil."  In many contexts, denounce is a much stronger verb than reject.

... in this context, "reject" implies an even more thorough rebuke, which is perhaps why Mr. Obama initially resisted the word.  Reject derives from the Latin reicere, "to throw back."  To reject something means to refuse to receive, accept or even recognize it.  You hurl it back, literally or metaphorically.

I have nothing against etymologies; I find many of them fascinating.  I sometimes digress in class to comment on an interesting bit of word history, like the pen- of penult and penultimate being originally the same element (meaning 'almost') as the pen- of peninsula: almost last, almost an island.  But I don't think such excursions actually contribute content to the class, beyond possibly making it easier for students to remember the technical terms; what's important in this case is that being next to last -- syllable in a word, word in a phrase or sentence -- is sometimes important in the analysis of linguistic structure, and that it's useful (though not strictly necessary) to have a short technical term with this meaning.  (In most cases, it's actually necessary to have a technical term, because there's no ordinary-language counterpart.)

Back to Freedman.  He characterizes the meaning of denounce as 'declare a person or thing to be wicked or evil' and the meaning of reject as 'refuse to receive, accept, or recognize'.  These definitions, which are very close to the ones in good dictionaries of modern English, are entirely adequate for Freedman's purposes in analyzing the Clinton-Obama exchange.  The etymologies contribute nothing; if you're a serious adherent to Omit Needless Words, or if you're just writing to space limitations, the etymologies should be excised.  So why are they there?

They're mostly ornamental, I think, though Freedman might believe that they contribute some support to his claims about the meanings of the verbs.  But those claims stand on their own as accounts of how these words are used.  Anything else is just our old acquaintance the Etymological Fallacy.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 3, 2008 02:13 PM