Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Etymology recapitulates phylogeny

Guest blogger Terry Provost says:

The proverbial “they”
call it the “etymological fallacy”, casting the truth as a falsehood before it even gets out of the starting-gate.

The idea is simple enough: the original meaning (temporally original) of a word is its correct meaning.

Taken to an extreme and deprived of pluralistic context, the “fallacy” is indeed a prescription for “mind forged manacles”, a prescription for prescriptive linguistics itself: but the world is always already the sum of all its meanings; we grasp a “meta-meaning” by including the historical process of its evolution in our understanding of its use, and this deepens and enriches our deployment of, and participation in the language.

All this by way of an introduction to an etymology that has intrigued, guided, and directed me for some time now: the idea that the word “poetry” comes from a Greek word meaning “to make”.

Arthur C. Danto, the historian and philosopher of art, has made much of how Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” collapsed the question of “what is art” into a single art-transcending instantiation.

I know of no equivalent poem, but certainly the question “but is it poetry” has never been far from the modern poet (“tennis without the net”.)

You will perhaps begin to sense my enchantment when you reflect that the Latin equivalent to the Greek “poem, is “fact”. That is, the legacy of the Roman word for “to make” is, in English, a “fact”. A Greek poem is a Roman fact.

Very… poetic.

The remnants of this legacy are palpable. “Manufacture”. “Factory.” The etymology of the word “manufacture” preserving as it does the Latin root for “hand”; to manufacture being “to make by hand.”

My how things change.

As a digression I can’t help but note how the words “manacles” (mind-forged or otherwise), “emancipation”, and “manumission” are allied.

If you share my fascination, perhaps you will wonder at how a “factory” would correspond with a Greek poem. As a first approximation, consider an MFA program in poetry.

Although I am skipping around quite a bit, and concentrating on the word “poetry”, I would like to make clear that the methodology I am using, the “etymological fallacy”, is quite general. It is also authoritative. Beyond this, it is scientific, both evolutionary, and ecological.

Without dwelling on it, recall the old evolutionary tongue-twister “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, the answer as to why, according to whichever evolutionary authority you choose, Charles Darwin to Sarah Palin, people have gills as embryos? At the end of the day, any evolutionary process will select genes that preserve pre-existing ecological functions, since it is relative to these “functions” that competition will be defined. Now observe that that evolutionary origin of language (in the sense of natural history) had to preserve whatever ecological function predated it. Not only this, but every subsequent linguistic “improvement” has therefore been a successful evolutionary adaptation.

OK, so even I can barely understand what I’m saying. It’s just that the idea of a poem as a fact, and a fact as a poem just kind of hits me over the head and sends black tarantulas down my spine.

The bigger picture is that language has an evolutionary and ecological function, and by studying language, we are studying natural history.

Thus, poetry is an act of making, and anything made is a poem.

In this context it is worth recalling that there is both an orthographic and semantic echo of this sense of poetry as making, in the words “hemopoiesis” (the making of blood), and “onomatopoeia” (the making of words from related sounds.) “Off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood/ jewels and miracles…”

It is possible to debate whether this or that is a “good” poem, but that will depend on the etymology of good (it is useful in this regard to meditate on the etymology of the word “etymology”), but it is not possible to debate whether anything “made” is a poem. In this sense, we possess an objective measure of whether or not something is a poem.

In a post-logical reality however, it is possible for something both to be, and not be a poem. What is or is not a poem to me may not be or be to you in the same way or others.

What then does a poem make?

Like the New York Times, it may make little more than a wonderful liner for collecting droppings in a bird cage.

Things are called poems most often when they make rhyme, when they make new language, or, and this is related, when they make, believe.

A poem is what makes, believe.


pottygok said...

The etymology of some other poetry related words:

craft: "power, strength, might"

meter: from the Greek metron, meaning "measure; a measure ('metre'), literally or figuratively; by implication, a limited portion (degree)"; however, the proto-indo-european root of this word, *me- also became the English words "month" and "moon".

language: from the Latin "lingua," meaning "tongue" or "speech"

Of course, it should probably be mentioned that many words associated with poetry--"lyric," "ode," "villanelle," "sonnet," etc. all relate to music.

In other words, in writing a well crafted poem, one must use the strength or might of one's tongue to make music.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Terry. Much food for thought.

Anonymous said...

A fascinating post in many regards.... I'm especially fond of this concept: "poetry is an act of making, and anything made is a poem," along with its helpmate "it is possible for something both to be, and not be a poem. What is or is not a poem to me may not be or be to you in the same way or others." One could take the first part even further and say even things that aren't made can be poems - as Emily Dickinson said, "To see a Summer Sky / Is Poetry." But then I would argue that all things, including the summer sky" are made - not necessarily by a God or any such thing, but by a (natural?) process of some sort. In conclusion, I might paraphrase Shakespeare and say nothing is a poem or not a poem but thinking makes it so. Thanks for a thought-provoking post! Methinks we can contract the phrase "provoking post" into "prov'ost."


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau