Etymology

Etymology as a folk pursuit is plagued by a few misunderstandings about what words are and what history means.

First, an etymology is often not what words “originally” meant, because except for recent coinages a la gerrymander whose first utterance we actually have records for, “originally” is an ideological, not logical, point of reference.  Of course, someone had to say every word for the first time at some point, but at that point in time he/she was the only person who had said it, so that word didn’t exist as a token for communication in any group.  Anyway, the first time a word is ever uttered is seldom what people mean by “originally”.  Usually in discourse on any subject, “originally” means “the time which I am taking as the  cultural high point before the start of the slow decline that brought us to the present”, which when you look at it is usually determined by that person’s political beliefs, not their deep understanding of linguistics. Saying hilarious “originally” meant “so funny you almost went insane”, and therefore the modern usage meaning “funny” is incorrect, is like saying that cows “originally” were aurochs, as if aurochs were the last statement on authentic bovinity.

(no, I don’t know the plural of aurochs)

Also, etymology can only tell you what people used to think a word meant, not what it “really” means.  The definition of a word is not some deep-hidden ultimate truth about it that millions of misguided fools including several people from your office are all wrong about.  The definition of a word is simply what people think it means.  If one of the things that people think about it is that some people think it means X, but those people are stupid, then that also is part of the definition or an alternate definition of that word.

So if you find yourself telling people they’re using a word wrong because you know what people used to think it means at some point in the past, you are really just adopting a pose to prop yourself as more educated or elite using as a stepstool the equivalent of knowing Gandalf’s genealogy one ancestor more than average.

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