Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Alan Watts and Etymology

The word "etymology" derives from from two Greek words: ἔτῠμον (truth) and λόγος (account). As such, it claims to be far more than a merely linguistic discipline. In its original sense, etymology attempts to get at the truth of an utterance, rather than merely the history of a word.

This is balderdash, of course, but it neatly summarizes the way etymology itself is often misused. We should be more sceptical.

I've been thinking about etymology a lot since listening recently to Alan Watts' lecture on "The Mythology of Hinduism". It's given me much to think about – about philosophy, life, improvisation and much else – albeit in a sketchy, pithy way. It's a large topic, which Watts condenses into bite-sized mental snacking material. Extracts of his recordings have been animated by Tray Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park.

And wow, he sounds amazing. His is one of the truly great voices. It resonates near the peak of an audio podium that I have made for my voice heroes, who include Oliver Postgate, Thurl Ravenscroft, Tim Gudgin and Vivian Stanshall. It is fruitily English, yet wavering, as if his cracked vowels were walking a tightrope between tears of comedy and tragic laughter. It's beguiling and seductive. No wonder he was married three times.

I don't like his rhetorical flourishes, though. They jump out at me, especially his excessive use of etymological examples to clarify the "original" meaning of modern English words. He peppers his simple poetic language with little these over-clever bits of supposed learning, which seem inserted to support his ego rather than his argument. It's a shame that he feels he has to appeal to mundane, spurious and earthly authorities, rather than the unadorned expressiveness of the myths he relates.

Because I like to be positive, I will give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that his use of etymology is as ironic as he makes it sound. Surely he of all people understands that words and truth are not the same thing. In fact, the pauses, intonation and little chuckles in his voice often carry more truth than the literal meaning of his gnomic, aphoristic witticisms.

That's not to say that etymology is never revealing. The game of tracing a word's history is a fun one – all the more so when its conclusions are absurd –  but playing it to prove a point is as flawed and dangerous an idea as drawing conclusions about a person by tracing their genealogy. If words do have authentic meanings, that authenticity resides in the space that opens up at the moment the word is spoken – and in the shape it makes in the mouth of the speaker – but not in a mummified remnant from an arbitrary past time.

We learn more from learning that the word "tragedy" derives from "goatsong" than from learning that "comedy" comes from "festival song", but there's far more still to be discovered about both words by performing them.

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