‘Poetical’ Etymologies?

This post is more about how the term ‘poetical’ tends to be used pejoratively, and how it corresponds to the term ‘etymologies’, rather than about any actually poetical etymologies, or etymological poetry, both of which I do think exist.

This morning’s Language Log brings us a post called ‘Poetical Etymologies‘, which reproduces this Wondermark cartoon:

Mark Liberman goes on to explain what real non-lying linguists think are the true derivations of ‘pep’ and ‘pepper’, and some commentators supply some missing information.

But what interests me here is the title of the post, ‘Poetical Etymologies’, since I don’t see anything very poetical about either the invented etymology in the cartoon, or the OED and the other attested etymologies given in the post. That is, unless ‘poetical’ is taken here to mean ‘fanciful’, ‘made-up’, ‘not-true’.

It’s not uncommon, as in the ‘literal’, ‘Literalville’ trope, to equate poetic language with untruth (Language Log has done it before). That’s what Plato did, way back when, and poets have had to mount defences against the charge ever since.

It’s also not uncommon to detect a poetic element in etymologies (again, see Language Log, or dip into Language Hat). And it turns out actual real poets think this way too (see below). But I think a poet would balk at having any false or folk etymology described as poetic, on the basis only of its not corresponding to linguistic consensus. And, moreover, true (or, agreed, I just mean not patently false) etymologies are typically considered even more poetic than the made-up ones. My working theory about this is that it has something fundamental to do with metaphor, and how metaphor propels language change, and in turn how metaphor propels a poem. The etymological explanation invented by the Victorian ‘linguist’ is just a tale, not a poem.

Here’s a very small sampling of what some actual poets have said on the topic:

R. W. Emerson:

The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.

Geoffrey Hill:

In handling the English language the poet makes an act of recognition that etymology is history. The history of the creation and the debasement of words is a paradigm of the loss of the kingdom of innocence and original justice.

Don Paterson:

the deeper our understanding of its etymology, the longer and stranger the shadow the word casts, and the more complex the patterns of overlapping shadows become.

Lavinia Greenlaw:

… I wanted to concentrate on single words and their etymological reverberations and associations. To me, this tight concentration and breakdown was like trying to focus on a single shade.

And see my other posts for discussions of etymologies doing poetic work in poems.


One Comment

  • excellent post, i balked at the term “poetical” in liberman’s post as well. I’ve always been fascinated with the power of etymology in poetry, since the form allows for so much focus on single words, giving them space to reverberate like the warehouses they are.

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