an argument about the use or meaning
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
there: "expressions," "phrases."
"Phrase" is too vague, so it might not as such
warrant having a spiffy semi-obscure word that specifically refers
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
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.
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
Have you ever read any of Mencken's 1921 classic
book American Language? The whole thing just
be on Bartleby Online.
Here ... this is the bit I was thinking of: "Grammarians
their Ways." It's long, but good. An excerpt you're sure
[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.
fond myself of regularly clinging to a few linguistic/grammatical
abnormalities that I realize are probably considered
So, my only remaining quibble is if one stretches
etymology to cover phrases as well, then one would then have to
go to the
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
first attested 1806; H.L. Mencken lists seven versions
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.