English Etymology, As Adapted To Popular Use: Its Leading Facts And Principles -- By: Benjamin W. Dwight

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 019:74 (Apr 1862)
Article: English Etymology, As Adapted To Popular Use: Its Leading Facts And Principles
Author: Benjamin W. Dwight


English Etymology, As Adapted To Popular Use: Its Leading Facts And Principles

Benjamin W. Dwight

There is a great neglected science of etymology, awaiting the day of thorough exploration; when, under the skilful hands of those who shall gather together its blocks of quarried marble, from out of the rubbish amid which they now lie confused, it shall rise as if by magic into a grand structure of columnar and turreted beauty, to be the joy of every eye that shall gaze upon it. English, as now used, is, in the comprehension of even our educated men generally, but a mass of opaque arbitrary conventionalisms; utterly destitute of any of those pictorial elements, which belong to language in its own true living forms. Modern words accordingly which once were in themselves veritable thought-pictures, are now without coloring to most eyes, and are but mere skeleton-drawings, instead of being lifelike sketches of the things which they represent.

Multitudes, from mere idle ignorance, imagine that etymology is foredoomed in its very elements and essence to be, at the best, but a mass of elegant vagaries and fancied surprises; and that anything beyond the range, where the testimony of the eye or of the ear is decisive in its favor, must be all a matter of uncertain guess-work. But truth has here, as elsewhere, a deeper significance than any of its mere superficial aspects would indicate.

As chemistry is not only a beautiful science by itself, but pours wonderful light also on geology, natural philosophy, and almost all the practical arts of life, — so, etymology, by its analyses and syntheses and its manifold beautiful evolution of the ideas enwrapped in words, as their very substance, gives large illumination, both in its exact definitions and in the elementary ideas still treasured in its brief expressive symbols, to the truths of theology, metaphysics, history and social experience, as well as to all the debatable elements of human inquiry and of human progress.

It is often said with truth that “ideas rule the world,” as also that men generally act to a surprising degree on the greatest questions of duty and interest, according to mere theory; but might it not be declared also quite as positively, that mere words themselves after all rule mankind? The widely expanded and ever newly expanding power of a mistake contained in the single word of some creed or dogma or dictum, is certainly one of the greatest of all marvels in the history of human opinions. Words acquire by long use a potency that is almost inexplicable, and retain their hold, as descriptive of human rights in law or of human interests in religion, upon the minds of generations that have long ceased to use them, in the ordinary cu...

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