more seat-of-the-pants etymology for our delectation

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Nov 17 15:47:30 UTC 2008

On Sat, Nov 15, 2008 at 11:58 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at> wrote:
> Take that, you "pros"!  Who needs you, "professoriate"?  Far be it
> from the Times to assign a book on etymology and lexicon to someone
> who actually knows something about either--that would be knuckling
> under to the pros and/or the professoriate.  (Who might point out,
> inter alia, that "nausea", whose true source is approvingly cited
> here--"If you a cave person earnestly trying to communicate how you
> felt digestively, you might without benefit of any verbal tradition
> come up with something close to 'nausea'"--neither author (humorist
> Roy Blount Jr.) nor reviewer (Jack Shafer of Slate) evidently having
> bothered to open a dictionary, where they might have noticed that
> "nausea" derives from the Greek word for is 'ship' (via the vector of
> seasickness) and is cognate with "nautical", "navy", "navigate",
> "nautilus", "noise", etc.  Or maybe all those words go back to how
> cave persons felt about the sea and other stuff; us professoriate
> types don't have the subtle intuitions of the self-diagnosed
> hyperlexics.

To be fair to Mr. Blount, he does know how to open a dictionary, and
in fact has served on the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel
(alongside our own Mr. Horn, if I'm not mistaken?). His book is full
of etymological talk, mostly derived from AHD and occasionally from
other dictionaries (and also some relatively well-informed online
sources like etymonline). And despite his writerly aversion to the
Saussurean thesis of linguistic arbitrariness, he's not *really*
arguing for a kind of universally motivated sound symbolism (a la
Plato's Cratylus) going back to the cave persons.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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