an argument about the use or meaning of words


It's been a long, long time since we have had an offering for our WORD WHORES section.

However, sometime ago, the Marquis and Bat engaged in a bit of casual logomachy that inadvertently led to their discovery of such a word as logomachy, and they decided it only fitting that said argument should be presented here for your entertainment.

The debate originally began when a gentleman friend of the Marquis' questioned him about how he had used the word "etymology" in refering to the origin of the idiom "raining cats and dogs."  The Marquis, then, wondered idly in his online journal about why the word "etymology" didn't also cover the origins of phrases and proposed that it should:

Excerpt from a little email banter with a Gentleman of Wit. I was explaining the origins of the phrase "raining cats and dogs" as I understood it, and used the word "etymology" in reference to the history of the phrase.

He wrote back: Can expressions have etymologies? Or is that just word origins? Interesting point.

Etymology is, in fact, the history of words. Singular words. But the term exists because words are elastic and mutable, and thus frequently require etymological study.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the word "etymology" itself should not be immune to such mutations, and thus I stretch its meaning to encompass turns of phrase as well, for if "etymology" won't budge an inch, then I should call it the greatest of hypocrites!

Bat then sent the Marquis an email:

Saw your question in your online journal. Can answer your basic query. No, etymology does not cover expressions. Just words. Which, yeah, make up phrases. But that's besides the point.

However, as you conveyed what you meant by saying "etymology of phrases," you made yourself understood, so if one believes that language evolves by making it adapt to concepts needing to be expressed, go fer it. Anywhere but France.

But. That approach to communication can get a bit sloppy over time.

Since etymology refers to the study of the origins and changes of words just themselves, then saying something like "origins of phrases" instead of "etymology of phrases" would probably be more correct. "Origins" may not sound as sexy as "etymology," but if you go around abusing a particularly nice word like etymology and insist on making it regularly do things not in its job description, then it'll come to a bad end -- and seem as impotent, tired, and saggy as poor serviceable "origins" apparently seems itself to you, too.

As to the larger query your post brings up -- there may well be a specific word for the study of the origins of phrases, but I don't know it, personally.

I think, though, where you are actually running into problems in hitting on the right definition (or the right word to fit the definition you have) is that you're using terms that are too broad there: "expressions," "phrases."

"Phrase" is too vague, so it might not as such warrant having a spiffy semi-obscure word that specifically refers to the study of its origins. "Phrases" can include a wide variety of stuff -- such as figures of speech, colloquialisms, idioms, dialects, idiolects, nomenclatures & terminologies, mottos, proverbs, adages, maxims, sayings, and all sorts of other various bits that might fall off plague-ridden rain-soaked medieval thatched roofs quite like cats & dogs.

The study of that all collectively is just generally called linguistics or even just language, my dear. Hehehe. (Although I'm sure some of those individually probably do have various sub-specialties of study with more specific titles.)

As you know I have been known to go poking about where one might find out about such things when I'm hunting down similar topics myself, I'll keep a lookout for a more precise word and let you know if I happen to trip across one.

Because now you've got ME curious. Damn you.

The Marquis to Bat:

Very good points you have. I, too, am *all* for the retardation of the inevitable bastardization of language. But then that brings up an interesting conundrum, qua "etymology."

To wit: if bastardization of language *didn't* happen, then we'd have no etymology. And what a dull place the world would be then! On the other hand, Jerry Springer and his trashy cohorts are singlehandedly destroying a perfectly good language. So when will it end? And am I just being fuddy duddy about it? Do you think Victorian elder generations shook their heads sadly at the manner in which the younger generation bastardized their language? Yes, every generation experiences this. The "good ole days" syndrome. So while I'm powerless to *approve* of JerrySpringerese, I at least acknowledge the historical pattern.

As for the rest of your treatise, very sound and well thought out, but I still maintain that it's hypocritical for the word "etymology" not to give a little and stretch itself to suit my fancy, considering it owes its existence to words that have stretched and mutated. It just seems fair.

Not that life is fair, nor language, so my point may be inarguable.

You can clearly see I am in need of cocktail. Off to that, then.

xo, mdd


Bat to the Marquis:

...."to suit my fancy" -- well, if you're insisting on your fancy, I won't argue much with that point, as sure, do to words as your fancy dictates.

Have you ever read any of Mencken's 1921 classic book American Language? The whole thing just happens to be on Bartleby Online. Here ... this is the bit I was thinking of: "Grammarians and their Ways." It's long, but good. An excerpt you're sure to like:

[The grammarian] is not often intelligent enough to deal with the fluent and ever-amazing permutations of a living and rebellious speech. The only way he can grapple with it at all is by first reducing it to a fixed and formal organization—in brief, by first killing it and embalming it.

All I can argue is that you're technically using it incorrectly, but I know you know when you're breaking the rules out of fancy. I will say this -- at least you have the decency to rationalize it prettily to boot.

I am fond myself of regularly clinging to a few linguistic/grammatical abnormalities that I realize are probably considered technically incorrect.

So, my only remaining quibble is if one stretches etymology to cover phrases as well, then one would then have to go to the effort of saying the etymology of words or the etymology of phrases to differentiate when getting more precise. But as enough people seem to have to add "of words" to etymology anyway (i.e., they'll say the "etymology of the word cocktail" rather than just saying the "etymology of cocktail," as if they do not trust that "of the word" is already packed into the term on its own), well, then, that quibble is probably moot.

I have an alternative suggestion for you, however. I think you should just get surreal and start referring to the entomology of phrases and see who catches on and asks you about larvae.


Speaking of cocktails, the etymology of cocktail is a tad peculiar. There are several different theories as to cocktail's origin (and I remember a debate in the Absinthe forum eons ago over its etymology, which coughed up a few other etymological theories I'd never seen before).

Here's one version from a particular etymology site I find useful to consult on occasion:


first attested 1806; H.L. Mencken lists seven versions of its origin, perhaps the most persuasive is Fr. coquetier "egg-cup." In New Orleans, c.1795, Antoine Amédée Peychaud, an apothecary (and inventor of Peychaud bitters) held Masonic social gatherings at his pharmacy, where he mixed brandy toddies with his own bitters and served them in an egg-cup. The drink took the name of the cup, in Eng. cocktay. Cocktail party first attested 1928.