Forgotten Paths: Etymology and the Allegorical Mindset

By Mulryan, John | Cithara, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Forgotten Paths: Etymology and the Allegorical Mindset


Mulryan, John, Cithara


Forgotten Paths: Etymology and the Allegorical Mindset. By Davide Del Bello. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Pp. xvi, 187. Illus. $64.95.

This elegantly written, brilliantly conceived book provides a richly expansive definition of etymology and its relation to allegory. That definition is based on the neoplatonic philosopher Proclus's [ca. 412-485] coinage of the term etymegoreia or allegorical etymology. As Del Bello notes, Proclus expands theprovinceof etymology from a study of word origins to include both argumentation and hermeneutics: "The fact is that etymegoreia treads the fuzzy, contested, liminal zone between words and things, thought and language, eternity and history, spirit and matter" (p. 46). The later Isidore of Seville [560-636], whose Etymologiae was perhaps the most popular and significant text to appear in the middle ages, also provides a definition of etymology which combines formal analysis with interpretation": "Etymology is the origin of words, when the force of a word or name is determined through interpretation'" (p. 105). "Etymology," according to Del Bello, "proposes that we read allegory (diversiloquium) as the rhetorical analogue of a cognitive process whereby a person bundles or blends together several (diverse) aspects of experience into one model, script, or story" (p. 157). In contrast, the nineteenth and twentiethcentury "scientific" etymologists or "Neogrammarians equated etymology with the one-way, strictly chronological reconstructions of 'roots'" (p. 5). Allegory or "other speaking" (diversiloquium) cites a meaning outside of the text, but that meaning is ultimately based on the words in the text itself. Thus for Del Bello, "de facto, etymologies function as the linguistic pillars on which allegory builds its interpretative edifice" (p. 108).

Del Bello admits he is swimming against the stream of so-called "scientific" etymology, which reduces the discipline of etymology to a formal, linear analysis of the origins of words, and ignores the historical and philosophical contexts of the words themselves, since these cannot be formally analyzed or accounted for. In effect, linguists are attempting "to formalize all figurative thought" (p. 162). This attitude is epitomized in the German historian Ernst Robert Curtius's dismissal of medieval etymologies as "foolish" and "insipid" (p. xiii). Moreover, the semiologist Ferdinand de Saussure's insistence on the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign (p. xv) renders the rhetorical and historical contexts of individual words inaccessible and frustrates any attempt to explore the richness of the words themselves. In fact, linguistics erred "in privileging form over meaning," and, "precisely because of its 'scientific' thrust, may have made opaque, or limited, the cognitive scope of meaning by reducing it to a series of formal features" (p. 9).

Del Bello inveighs against the current attempt on the part of linguists to reduce etymology to mere derivation of words: "While acceptable from a linguistic viewpoint, this kind of etymology would more aptly be defined as an 'atomology/ for it cuts up and muddles the set of historical meanings and the constellation of rhetorical senses a word belongs to ... " (p. 163); ". . . linguistics cannot continue to gloss over one aspect of its subject just because it eludes systematic formalization" (p. 26). True etymology treats ". . . the symbolic, rhetorical, ideological, cognitive, and value-making aspects of human language that one-way scientism must disregard" (p. 32). If we agTee that "thought and speech are inseparably interwoven, both phy logenetically and ontogenetically, it must also be granted that an exclusively linguistic approach to language offers only a partial view" (p. …

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