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

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Nov 17 16:23:46 UTC 2008

At 10:47 AM -0500 11/17/08, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
>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.
OK, maybe it's Mr. Shafer for whom I should reserve my animus, for
his gratuitous insults of those who make a business and not just a
hobby of this stuff.  The methodology used for deriving "nausea" and
"quirky" cited in the review do strike me as a bit discouraging,


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