Verba tene, res sequentur: ancient etymologies in the modern classroom

J.C. McKeown

University of Wisconsin at Madison

It has long been recognised that, for many students, one of the greatest benefits to be derived from learning Latin is the enhancement of their English vocabulary. In order to encourage the deduction of the meaning of unfamiliar words, we all take pains to emphasise the systematic manner in which English has taken over so much Latin vocabulary, pointing to such groups as altitudo, fortitudo, magnitudo, multitudo and brevitas, dignitas, gravitas, simplicitas and audax, capax, pugnax, vivax.

Moreover, the study of the quirky and unexpected origins of particular English words is one of the greatest pleasures of learning Latin. Students are fascinated to discover that 'nice' is derived from nescius, 'joy' from gaudium, 'Cologne' from Colonia Agrippina, 'carnival' from carnem levare (vegetarianism in Lent), 'porcelain' from porcella (the smooth, rounded skin of a piglet), 'salad' and 'sausage' from sal, 'vermicelli' from vermes (which is cognate with the English 'worm'), 'vinegar' and 'vinyl' from vinum, 'formica' from formica, and indeed that grammatica itself gives us 'glamor'.

The purpose of this paper is to suggest that attention to what the Romans (or indeed the Greeks) thought about the origins of their own language can be a valuable tool in the classroom, not only enhancing study of the language but also casting light on the culture in general. Etymologising was a standard part of ancient education, and fundamental also to religious and philosophical thought. Some of the principles for linguistic study were, of course, invalid, and produced bizarre results: most notorious was the e contrario principle, which led to the explanation of ludus a non ludendo and bellum quia res non bella est. Nevertheless, the modern prejudice against ancient etymologising, simply because it is so often wrong, has led to an undervaluing of what it can tell us about ancient life and thought. 

Quintilian introduces etymologising early (Institutio Oratoria 1.6.31), with discussions of inter alia, the origin of Brutus, Latium and Capitolinum, which invite consideration of history, mythology and the topography of Rome respectively. Such connections to broader issues can be made practically ad infinitum. Blood-circulation was not understood in antiquity: since the arteries of a corpse are empty, arteriae were explained as either passages for air (aer) or as narrow (artus, -a -um) passages for the vital spirit. A candidate for public office was so called because he wore a white toga: in 432 BC, there was great controversy over a law forbidding candidates to attempt to gain unfair advantage by wearing an artificially whitened toga. Even etymologies e contrario can tell us something about Roman life: a foedus, a peace-treaty, is an excellent thing, but it is so called because of the disgusting nature (foeditas) of the pig sacrificed at its ratification. The etymology of castra reminds students of the grim life in a military camp: a camp was a castus locus, from which women were barred, and where libibo was castrated. The similar explanation of castor 'beaver' may be reserved for the end-of-term party.


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