Varieties of Nostalgia: Victorian and Modernist Romances with Etymology

© Glenn Clifton 2008

I.A) Introduction

Serious investigation of the etymology of individual words is far from the centre of contemporary linguistics. The article on “Etymology” in David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language begins with a discussion of the “etymological fallacy,” the view that “an earlier meaning of a lexeme, or its original meaning, is its ‘true’ or ‘correct’ one” (136). Etymology is thus introduced with a warning against taking the topic very seriously. Since de Saussure’s revolutionary separation of diachronic and synchronic linguistics, etymology has fallen out of fashion. Some authors, most notably Yakov Malkiel, have protested the lack of etymological research; Malkiel considers the topic so critical that he writes his book Etymology without footnotes so as to make it more widely accessible to readers (Malkiel xii).  Malkiel’s reasoning is that while our society continues to demand that good dictionaries attempt to tell us the etymologies of words, linguists refuse to launch any new research to make sure that the dictionaries are accurate (Malkiel 167-170). This points toward a broader issue: curiosity about the origins of words, perhaps animated by the belief that their older meanings can reveal their true meaning – in other words, the etymological fallacy – is alive and well among laypeople, whatever linguists might say.

Some form of faith in what Milan Kundera calls “the secret strength of… etymology” (Kundera 20) seems to persist no matter how many people try to dismantle it. It was traditionally thought that “etymological metaphysics” as an approach to language came to an end after the 18th century, with the rise of the 19th century scientific philology and the comparative method. The linguists of the 19th century certainly cast themselves as scientists rather than as metaphysicians. But it is now common to note the continuity between 18th and 19th century linguistic thought. More specifically, it is clear that the romance with etymology continued through the 19th century as a potent rival to more scientific attitudes, often within the work of the same individual. Even in the early 20th century, the belief in this “secret strength” was alive in the work of linguists, essayists, and poets. Etymology[1] remained a charged subject long after linguistics claimed to have moved beyond the longing to hear the language God had assigned to Adam. My aim is to trace the development of these ideas and provide a survey of the “truth functions” etymology has been understood to fulfill in the Victorian and Modernist periods.

I.B) A Note on Classification

The various truth functions I outline are summarized in a chart in the appendix at the end of the paper. I argue for two divisions. First, depending on how etymology is approached, I separate “originary” and “palimpsestic” truth. The first denotes an approach that is only interested in what a word originally meant, and the second an approach that is interested in the relationship between things it meant at several different stages of its evolution. Second, the truth functions are divided by the kind of truth that etymology is taken to reveal. “Ontological” truth (only found in originary approaches) refers to the belief that etymology is valuable because the original meaning of the word has an inherently higher ontological status than later meanings of it. “Poetic” truth, found in both kinds of approaches, refers to the belief that some important moment of poetic apprehension or rich meaning took place either when the word was first coined or during its evolution, and that this should be recovered. Developmental truth (only found with palimpsestic approaches) refers to the idea that the process of a word’s evolution says something corresponding about the evolution of humanity or consciousness. Disruptive truth (which I place with palimpsestic approaches, but which to some extent transcends this dichotomy) refers to the belief that earlier meanings of words are useful because they disrupt or complicate the meanings of words in the present.

            All of these are somewhat lofty missions for etymology. The belief that etymology is simply interesting, or reveals factual, historical information, or truths largely of value to the linguist, I do not treat here. But it seems to be an idea that gained currency more recently than one would expect. In his popular 1917 book The Romance of Words, Ernest Weekley begins by saying his book differs from all other popular books on language because it aims only at pleasure and “makes no attempt to enforce a moral” (Weekley v). Based on my research, this claim seems justified. 

II) The Old Ways: Etymological Metaphysics Before the Nineteenth Century

Prior to the 19th century, interest in etymology was often animated by a belief that language was originally revealed to man, and that the roots might have some power. Francis Bacon believed that he might control animals if he knew the original names Adam had named them with (Ruthven 20). Milton was the master of this kind of etymologizing in poetic practice; as many scholars have noted, Paradise Lost is filled with creative uses of words that play the literal etymological meaning of a word off its contemporary, fallen connotative meaning, emphasizing the fallen reader’s inability to even hear and understand a description of paradise properly (Ruthven 14). These are examples of what I call the “Adamic” variety of originary, ontological truth: the belief that the roots have higher etymological status because of their proximity to Biblical revelation.

            Horne Tooke, author of the Diversions of Purley, is the writer directly antecedent to the 19th century philologists who might be understood as the theoretical representative of the etymological metaphysics. Tooke thought that speakers were often misled by the fact that, without knowing the etymology of the words they used, they did not know what those words properly signified and so could be misled by philosophers and other authors into confusion (Harris and Taylor, 149-150). But it is important to recognize as well the many senses in which Tooke is highly modern; he is inspired by Locke, and his politics are radically democratic (Harris and Taylor, 139-140).

III) The 19th Century and the Historical Method

As I indicated, it is fairly standard now to note that the rise of the historical perspective of the 19th century has more continuity with what came before it than was once thought. On the continent, the influence of Schlegel’s Romantic idealization older languages on 19th century German linguists such as Bopp and Grimm is especially well noted (Fox 317-18). This mixture of a more scientific attitude with a persisting Romanticism has its parallel in England in the rise of the Philological Society and the creation of the OED.

III.A) Trench and the Study of Words

The initial proposal for the dictionary that was to become the OED was made to the Philological Society in 1857 by Richard Trench, a man who is generally regarded as a representative of the new, more scientific approach to language. And yet Trench approaches etymology and the history of words in a moralistic spirit nearly the opposite of what we would today call “scientific.” Trench claims in his book The Study of Words that not only in books, but in words themselves, “boundless stores of moral and historic truth, and no less of passion and imagination, [are] laid up” (9). Trench sees individual words as a record of the decadence of his own time. Rather like Milton, Trench wants to draw attention to the fact that many words which have negative connotations in his own time once signified virtues; the derivation of “prude” from “prudent” is a good example, as it demonstrates the fact that the human tendency to hypocrisy has created a corresponding verbal degradation (Trench 55). This facet of word-history is not merely a historical fact, but is of great moral importance because language itself is no mere accident. “Words often contain a witness for great moral truths – God having impressed such a seal of truth upon language, that men are continually uttering deeper things than they know” (Trench 17-18). For Trench, etymology does moral work because the original meanings of words are sealed by God.

The mechanism by which God does this is not stated, given that Trench knows well enough that the English language was not present at the creation of the world. Trench makes an argument for an ontological value for the original meanings of words, but vaguely. (See his position in the Appendix.) Walter Skeat, who published the influential Etymological Dictionary in 1881, makes a similar claim with similar vagueness in his Preface: “The speech of man is, in fact, influenced by physical laws, or in other words, by the working of divine power” (Skeat xv).

III.B) The Conflicted Atmosphere of the OED

As Trench’s brainchild, the OED is born out of this intersection between scientific objectivity and nostalgia. Dennis Taylor’s study of the relationship between Hardy’s literary practice and the OED provides an excellent depiction of the tension that produced this masterwork of the Victorian mind. While it was the moralistic Trench who first proposed the dictionary, its most important editor, Murray, often warded off those who would place an emphasis on etymology – for some time it was even doubted etymologies would be included in the OED (Taylor 229). As Taylor writes, “Because of their complex search for insight through historical understanding, the Victorian philologists were under a powerful pressure to find some final orientation, some transcendent absolute, which would clarify once and for all what it is that history is showing” (241). Philologists of the time often knew that there were no transcendent origins for language but forgot this, and then “waxed rhapsodic” about origins (Taylor 241). Taylor sees a mirror of this nostalgia of the OED to Hardy’s literary practice, which he argues often writes in the melancholy shadow of an origin it can no longer find, but does not know how abandon; “Hardy, then, is controlled by a past which he cannot know and his words derive from ancient words whose meaning he cannot penetrate” (Taylor 269).

Ultimately, it might be said that science won the battle for the dictionary. Despite the fact that the OED has been widely criticized for its cultural assumptions – above all, for being part of an attempt to legitimize the language of the upper classes – it also takes many steps towards objectivity. When the first two letters of the OED were released in 1888, people actually saw it as a sign of decadence, because it included slang and foreign words (Dowling 171-72). In the end the dictionary was more scientific than people had hoped, and in its inclusiveness it failed to offer the comfort of proving that the history of language amounted to a revelation of deeper meaning.

III.C) The Aryan and Semitic Distinction

William Graham’s Exercises on Etymology (1854), begins by claiming that:

Etymology should have higher aims. It should exhibit the roots of a language which has long since ceased to be spoken; and, connecting these with those of other vanished tongues, lead to the confirmation of the truth of one primitive language. Etymology should also point out the similar character of all lingual changes – a similarity arising from the common nature of man (iii).

Graham believed, as many still did, that the original language was Hebrew or something close to Hebrew, and that some “debased” languages, such as Chinese, had decayed from this original (Graham 197, 201). Not surprisingly, the “common nature of man” that etymology was supposed to reveal looked like a European monotheist.

            But William Graham was behind the times. A more complex version of the same argument was developed by those who were more aware than Graham of what we now call the Indo-European language family, and what was usually then called “The Aryans.” The Aryans necessitated a more complex account of how the Ur-language existing before all Western languages could be said to guarantee any kind of truth, since the Aryans were not even monotheists. Scholars such as Max Müller and Ernest Renan offered an account of how the destiny of the west could be linked to a powerful linguistic root without the Aryans themselves having any special access to divine revelation. Since the Semitic languages and the Aryan languages can be seen as combining in the spread of early Christianity in the Roman empire, Europe could be imagined as a fortuitous recombination of basic linguistic elements. Maurice Olender summarizes the basic outline of this story:

Separated in early childhood, Aryans and Semites follow singular destinies, are distinct in every way. In a divine drama whose theatre is Universal history, Providence sees to it that each plays its proper role. The Aryans bring the west mastery over nature, exploitation of time and space, the invention of mythology, science, and art, but the Semites hold the secret of monotheism – at least until that fateful day when Jesus comes into the world at Galilee (Olender 14).

There were more and less anti-Semitic variants of this idea; Müller, for example, tended to use it to praise the Semitic languages for their fidelity to God’s revelation, whereas Ernest Renan spoke of the “unfortunate fidelity” of the inflexible Semitic languages, which caused their speakers to fail to recognize the changed situation when Christianity dawned (Olender 55). While Müller was interested in the racial history of language for a time, he later wrote against the equation of a race of people with a language, saying that he had begun to realize it was dangerous (Müller 1889, 66). He instead tried to affirm a brotherhood of peoples, bound by common linguistic roots (Müller 1889, 44-48).

            The Aryan/Semitic distinction provided another way to ground the originary, ontological truth function by giving modern European languages special status through their combination of roots.

III.D) The Case of Max Müller

In addition to writing about the Aryan and Semitic distinction, Max Müller offered other comforts as well. Müller delivered an enormously popular series of lectures in the 1860s, and once gave a private lecture to Victoria. But it has also been argued that his popularity was in many ways in inverse proportion to his respect among specialists (Dowling 160). Dowling argues that this is precisely because he offered a comforting story that reconciled an evolutionary view of language with a belief that language was not in any way arbitrary. (Dowling 161). Müller tried to claim that the Aryan roots themselves were natural, and represented some kind of harmony between humans and the world:

The 400 or 500 [Aryan] roots which remain as the constituent elements of different families of language are not interjections, nor are they imitations. They are phonetic types, produced by a power inherent in human nature. They exist, as Plato would say, but nature; though with Plato we should add that, when we say by nature, we mean by the hand of God. There is a law which runs through nearly the whole of nature, that everything which is struck rings. Each substance has its peculiar ring… It is the same with man, the most highly organized of nature’s works. Man rings (Müller 1861, 401-402).

Müller goes on to write that natural selection is involved in deciding which roots stayed after a pre-historic period of wild root-making. Since all European languages come from 400-500 Aryan words, and those survived due to their inherent matching with nature, the World is in some sense incarnated in the Word, at least everywhere in Europe. Etymology again comes to correspond to the nature of things.

This theory was soon to be entirely discredited, and was dubbed the “ding-dong” theory – a name that remained associated with Müller after his death (Dowling 174). But it is also important to note that some new elements have entered. The vague claim that “man rings” comes close to suggesting a more poetic type of truth, wherein roots are valuable not because they come from a time with an ontologically higher status but simply because, by a process of elimination, appropriate roots have survived, like good poems.

IV) Twentieth Century Linguists and Essayists

The discrediting of Müller’s ding-dong theory did not mean that etymology ceased to be romanticized at all – only that the ways of doing so had to become increasingly more subtle. In the twentieth century, the ways that etymology was taken to be revelatory broadened. Some possibility that roots were important for poetic reasons had been articulated as early as Emerson’s mid 19th century essays, when he claimed that “language is fossil poetry” (Emerson 17). But in the early 20th century, the interest in both poetry and progress became more important for etymologists.

IV.A) Jespersen

Jespersen’s Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin, written in 1922, is an attempt to trace the evolution of language through time that criticizes Müller’s attempt to prove that everything in language must have originally had a significant purpose (Jespersen 316-17). Jespersen sees language as generally progressive, rather than regressive, whittling away at childish and rambling primeval talk to reach small, freely combinable elements (429). He is even willing to posit this as a law: “The evolution of language shows a progressive tendency from inseparable irregular conglomerations to freely and regularly combinable short elements” (429). At the same time he claims, “Just as the history of religion does not pass from the belief in one god to the belief in many gods, but inversely from polytheism to monotheism, so language proceeds from original polysyllabism towards monosyllabism (420-21). Thus, while the Victorian romance with etymology is countered, and progress rather than regress is affirmed, the new argument achieves much the same purpose as the old – it helps guarantee that modern Europeans have a linguistic efficacy that matches their knowledge of religious truth.

IV.B) Barfield and the Palimpsest

Owen Barfield, a popular writer on language of the early and mid 20th century, claims much the same thing as Jespersen, arguing that language gains in its power for abstraction as the human mind develops through history. Barfield, more than Jespersen, uses the etymologies and histories of individual words to tell stories about how the mind has grown. Barfield’s viewpoint has been summarized as the view that language is a reflection of the evolution of the mind, which gradually detaches itself from the world (Tennyson 179). As in the philosophy of Hegel, this necessary evolution of the mind happens to correspond to the history of Europe, and also with the spread and development of Christianity as the true religion. And yet, Barfield simultaneously seems to long for the poetic simplicity of earlier language, claiming that we have lost in poetry what we have gained in abstraction (Barfield 1928, 91-92). For Barfield, we seem to be more alone now that we know more truth. The ambivalent belief in both progress and loss, common in the Modernist treatments of history with which it is contemporary, is nowhere better summarized than in the following passage, which arises from his reflection on the history of four words:

When we reflect on the history of such notions as humour, influence, melancholy, temper, and the rest, it seems for a moment as though some invisible sorcerer has been conjuring them all away inside ourselves – sucking them away from the planets, away from the outside world, away from our own warm flesh and blood, down into the shadowy realm of thoughts and feelings. There they still repose; astrology has changed to astronomy; alchemy to chemistry; today the stars glitter unapproachable overhead, and with a naïve detachment mind watches matter moving incomprehensibly in the void. At last, after four centuries, thought has shaken itself free (Barfield 1926, 138).

Language has evolved to give us objective science rather than poetry, but this means the stars are now “incomprehensible,” hanging in a void we cannot touch. Barfield seems to proclaim, in the rather surprising last sentence, that this is a wonderful thing, representing a long awaited freedom. But he seems almost ignorant of how his own language also carries a significant amount of nostalgia. Barfield’s progressivism, like most quasi-Hegelian views after World War One, is accompanied by some doubt about the successes of reason.

            It is important to note that a new type of truth-function has entered here; Barfield (and to some extent Jespersen) is not interested in looking at the history of words just to learn from their origins, but also – and primarily – from the palimpsest formed by their evolution. What is important is not the contrast or correlation between the contemporary word and its root, but the several stages in the evolution of the mind that can be traced by following words through a plurality of meanings. (See Appendix.) In the poetic practices of modernist authors, it was this layering of several stages of word evolution that would be taken in new directions.

V) Modernist Poetics I: Ezra Pound

A) Context: Pound’s Poetics of Force and Objectivity

Ezra Pound offers the example of a radically conservative modernist poetics within which etymology plays a crucial role in guaranteeing the truth and objectivity of poetry. While Pound’s longing for lost origins resembles the ideas of Trench and Hardy in one sense, there are important differences. First, we will see that Pound is also interested in the way language (in this case, Chinese characters) are palimpsestic, rather than simply in recapturing their original meaning. Second, the truth that etymology is meant to reveal is no longer an ontological truth that is closer to God or to the origins of the world, nor is it a truth about the evolution of consciousness; rather, etymology is part of a pathway to a more naked, virile depiction of force and motion. In this sense, the kind of truth Pound is interested in is clearly a “poetic” truth, though there is a certain “ontological” overtone to it, in as much as Pound thinks force and motion important because they are the essence of reality.

Pound’s fascination with etymology lies buried in his theories about language and force, and his general fear of abstractions. The first of Pound’s famous criteria for an imagist poem is “1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective” (quoted in Kenner 178). Poetry with vague abstract language, popular in magazines of the early 20th century, Pound criticized as the result of the poet “not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol” (quoted in Kenner 181). Pound’s poetics launches a war on abstract thoughts and aims to present only concrete things. While Kenner’s famous study actually stresses that imagism as a doctrine really held Pound’s attention only briefly (Kenner 173-75), the desire for the concrete remained central to Pound’s poetics. This is in part to get around the subjective element of poetry and allow it to express only what is objectively true. Peter Nicholls has shown that Pound’s economic thinking, and especially his hatred of the “abstract” generation of wealth through investment, interest, and speculation – what Pound called “usury” – also developed alongside his poetic thinking; “Pound’s ideas about myth, rhythm, the image, and linguistic precision were thus never exclusively ‘literary’ and technical, but were closely bound up with his developing conceptions of authority and economic justice” (Nicholls 2). As the 1930’s wore on, Pound became increasingly obsessed with force and “action,” and he ultimately came to emphasize strength as the only test of an idea (Nicholls 99). It was ultimately this kind of thinking that led Pound to his deep sympathy with Italian fascism, which also proclaimed itself to be the unity of action and thought (Nicholls 99). Ironically, Nicholls argues, Pound’s approval of Mussolini’s regime for its concrete force and lack of economic abstraction (usury) led him to fall short of his own belief in the concrete; he ended up subordinating all his thinking to the external, abstract idea of Mussolini’s legitimacy (Nicholls 97).

V.B) Etymology and Chinese Ideograms

The role that etymology plays in Pound’s celebration of force is most clearly expressed in the essay The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, by Pound’s mentor Ernest Fenollosa, which Pound prepared for publication and quoted extensively in his own works. Fenollosa stresses that the form of the sentence is embedded in the objective reality of time and force. “The sentence form was forced upon primitive men by nature itself. It was not we who made it; it was a reflection of the temporal order of causation. All truth has to be expressed in sentences because all truth is the transference of power” (12). Thus, the Aryan roots all signified actions; they were all verbs (16). Here we see a link with the primitivism of Barfield; Fenollosa believes that primitive language was poetic and that poetry today can still access some of this original directness (9). But whereas Barfield saw modern European languages as abstract but ultimately liberating, Fenollosa sees no upside to the way language has developed. The only result of the modern reliance on abstract nouns and the passive voice is the decay of poetic perception; languages today are “thin and cold” (24).

Fenollosa adds a curious twist to this story, however; he also believes that Chinese characters inherently perform the same function as poetry. Chinese ideograms express the unseen and immaterial only by the metaphorical usage of direct and concrete words, which avoids the vitiating power of abstraction (22). Whereas modern languages have forgotten that they used metaphor to produce their abstractions, Chinese characters make this clear. And here etymology enters:

There is little or nothing in a phonetic word to exhibit the embryonic stages of its growth. It does not bear its metaphor on its face…. In this Chinese shows its advantage. Its etymology remains constantly visible. It retains the creation impulse and process, visible and at work…Thus a word, instead of growing gradually poorer and poorer as with us, becomes richer and still more rich from age to age (25).

Visible etymology, preserved in Chinese, is the way back to poetry. Chinese characters reveal the “creation impulse and process,” which also suggests that they reveal the accretion of force over time, thus allowing sentences to take on more and more energy rather than less and less. As Marianne Korn points out, etymology also performs for Pound and Fenollosa the role of palimpsestic fact gathering, and thus leads language back to stating only objectively true relations (Korn 121). Pound did occasionally have recourse to arguments drawn from the etymology of European words, as when he drew attention to the connection between language, poetry, and the verb “to condense” that was “almost as old as the German language itself” (Pound ABC 36). But for the most part, it was only Chinese characters that Pound and Fenollosa trusted to present vital language with its etymology, as a concrete palimpsest of the active force of the working mind, on display. Pound believes with Emerson that the kind of truth that is told here is poetic truth, not ontological truth, but what is important is the accretion of a process, not the recovery of a single original moment of poetic apprehension.

V.C) Examples from Pound’s Poetry

Pound’s application of these poetic principles in the later Cantos is notoriously difficult to follow. Chinese ideograms frequently appear in the text, sometimes alongside English explanations of their meaning, sometimes without them. In Canto LXXVII, an entire line of poetry in Chinese appears in the margin followed by Pound’s translation in an appendix at the end. The line is translated as “To sacrifice to a spirit not one’s own is flattery (sycophancy)” (Pound Cantos 496). In the main body of the poem next to this line, Pound describes a scene from his imprisonment during the war. While the application of this defiant line of Chinese poetry to Pound’s imprisonment for treason is evocative, it is highly unclear what legitimacy is added to the line of poetry by the fact that it is written in Chinese characters. Most readers will have to rely on Pound’s translation anyway, and any significant resemblance between the visual figures and what Pound says they mean is highly elusive. One can begin to speculate if one wants; the ideogram for “spirit” looks slightly like the ideogram for man with a sort of window added in the middle (signifying interiority?), and the ideogram for sacrifice looks a little bit like hands dropping something. Perhaps. But I provide these speculations mainly to evince their inadequacy. Even if the “sacrifice” ideogram is an image of hands releasing something, it is nearly nonsensical to claim that putting this on the page is tantamount to stating an objective reality about sacrifice. And yet the preponderance in the later Cantos of Chinese characters with English translations also provided suggests that Pound believes precisely this; by setting out these Chinese characters with their etymology intact, Pound is trying to write poetry that directly puts forth the objective relation of forces.

            An earlier Canto (LI) provides the best evidence that this is what Pound wants. Much of the poem is a lament about the ill effects of usury:

With usury no man has a good house

made of stone, no paradise on his church wall

With usury the stone cutter is kept from his stone

the weaver is kept from his loom by usura

Wool does not come into market

the peasant does not his own grain

the girl’s needle goes blunt in her hand

The looms are hushed one after another (250).

Usury is leading to the decay of economic activity. The poem ends with two Chinese ideograms. No translation is given by Pound for these, which signify “Right Name” (Terrell 199). These characters enter like a seal or signature at the end of the poem, as if they could by their own power certify that Pound has succeeded in using the right names for things, which was of course his greatest aim. By calling usury by its right name, (by not calling it something neutral, like “investment”) Pound can tell the truth, supposedly. The Chinese characters are meant to seal this truth with the secret strength of etymology.

VI) Modernist Poetics II: Wallace Stevens

VI.A) Context: Stevens’s Poetics of Abstraction

Pound and Stevens have often been contrasted. Whereas Pound wanted poets to go in fear of abstraction, Stevens proclaimed that the Supreme Fiction “must be abstract” (Stevens CP 380). Stevens wanted the poetry of ideas, the poetry that spoke directly about poetry. At the centre of this abstract poetics of poetry is a consideration of the role of the imagination in constructing reality. So whereas Pound has a poetics of the objective, of the apprehension of real forces moving in time, Stevens’s poetics presents the shifts and eddies of the imaginative construction of reality. The subject matter of poetry must always be reality, but this does not just mean exterior things; Stevens writes in his essays that “reality is not that external scene but the life that is lived in it” (Stevens NA 25). As such, reality and the imagination are interdependent, and cannot even be meaningfully separated (NA 33). Whereas it has been argued that Pound saw his entire enterprise as an attempt to build something with the solidity of a monument (Rainey 2), many understand Stevens as the poet who, above all, battles against the monumental, against what attempts to make meaning rigid and so fix the imagination (Cleghorn 55). Stevens treats statues and other monuments of fixed public meaning with disdain, and claims they fail to get at reality, failing to generate any new act of the imagination (NA 10-11).

Because Stevens resists fixity and absolutes in the realm of the imagination, play is central to his poetry. Stevens wants to use language in a way that undermines its ability to make things even appear fixed; in other words, as many have argued, Stevens is a great forerunner of postmodernism.[2] Word-play is one way to fight the fixity of language, and Stevens engages in many types of word play. Puns and jokes abound. Stevens actually has an early poem, for example, entitled “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” Eleanor Cook, in her study of Stevens’s forms of word play, lists puns, plays on prepositions and grammar, riddles, and etymological play as a part of his repertoire, and adds that for a playful poet like Stevens, “false etymologies are as useful as true ones” (Cook 7). Etymology is part of the way Stevens counters the rigidity of language, pitting the history of language against the monuments made by rhetorics of the present. As Stevens claims in his essays, he lives in a time when reality is pressing against poetry, and the imagination must fight back (NA 36). The past of language is one way of fighting back. I call this the “disruptive” truth function of etymology, since it means to introduce ambiguity rather than certainty into language. It is important to note, however, that it is also palimpsestic, since what is important is to observe the layering of past language behind the way language is used in the present.

VI.B) Example from Stevens’s Poetry

One poem that demonstrates the persistent relevance of etymology in Stevens’s poetry – what Cook calls the constant need to go to the dictionary – is “The Dwarf.” I quote it here in full:

Now it is September and the web* is woven.

The web is woven and you have to wear* it.

The winter is made and you have to bear it,

The winter web, the winter woven, wind and wind,*

For all the thoughts of summer that go with it

In the mind, pupa* of straw, moppet* of rags.

It is the mind that is woven, the mind that was jerked

And tufted* in straggling* thunder and shattered sun.

It is all that you are, the final dwarf of you,

That is woven and woven and waiting to be worn,

Neither as a mask* nor as a garment but as a being,

Torn from insipid summer, for the mirror* of cold,

Sitting beside your lamp, there citron to nibble*

And coffee dribble… Frost is in the stubble* (Stevens CP 208).

Some words in this poem only make sense when one looks at them etymologically. Mirror was originally, a model or exemplar (“mirror” n. I 1a, 3rd ed. Mar. 2002).[3] Thus, a “mirror of cold” is an exemplar, the small model one makes of oneself for winter, implying that one has taken the wheat and left the chaff, so to speak. But this process of making a model of the self (in the double sense of the word model – an exemplar and a smaller version) involves several other metaphors which are tightly interconnected. All the words I have marked have older meanings listed in the OED which play off of the meanings of some of the other words in the poem. Thus, the poem itself is like something woven (a text – another etymological pun) because each of its threads connects to the other threads repeatedly.

            Web originally refers to anything woven (“web” n., I 1a.), making the first line tautological. Wear, for a brief time, meant “to cool down” in Northern dialect (“wear” v. 3); it should also be noted that the double sense of “wear down” fits the poem. Wind (rhyming with hind) once meant, “of living things, to go on one’s way, to take oneself, to proceed” (“wind” v.1, 2a), which is certainly part of what the poem is about, but more importantly, it also once meant “to winnow” in Northern dialect (“wind” v.1, 3). (The poem as a whole equates the winnowing of the self with a natural process – the coming of winter – as does the history of this word.) Pupa is, etymologically, a doll or girl in Latin (“pupa,” n., 3rd ed. Sept. 2007); a moppet, too, is a doll or a girl (“moppet” n.2, 3rd ed. Dec. 2002), but also a mop (n.1), and thus we might say something tufted out of fabric. Straggle is “a thin, lank, or untidy growth of hair” (n.2), which suggests what comes before stubble, in the usual sense of that word. Straggle is also of a plant to grow irregularly (“straggle” v.2, e), which would be the opposite of the first meaning of wind. A mask is originally, in OE, the mesh of a net (“mask” n.1, 1, 3rd ed. Dec. 2000), and thus a web. Nibble was once a quantity of grass that could be eaten in one bite by an animal (“nibble” n.2a,  3rd ed. Sept. 2003), which means it is what comes before the original sense of stubble, which is the grain-stalks left after reaping (n.1). In some sense then, the stubble is the chaff. But is the chaff in the stubble on your face (part of you) or in the stubble outside? Is the model of oneself the wheat or the chaff? When the mind was “tufted,” and cut down to size, what was taken and what was left? As I read the poem, this is its central ambiguity.

            Etymological play assists this ambiguity by weaving together images of shaving, winnowing, weaving, and nibbling to suggest their inseparability. Almost no important word is allowed to mean only one thing. The claim that one does not wear the winter web “as a mask,” for example, is undercut, because a mask was originally like a web. The intertext of older meanings of words does not provide the poem with any absolute meaning; it does the opposite of Pound’s ideogrammatic seal. Rather, the fact that the images of shearing, weaving, and freezing have been tied together in the past adds to the cyclic nature of the poem. As every winter one winnows oneself down to a “final dwarf,” these images have been repeatedly woven together before, and with the same inconclusiveness. With Stevens, etymology helps show that language has a long history of ambiguity.

VII) Conclusion: Postmodernism and Etymology

Stevens’s poetics points towards what we might generally call the “postmodern” view of the indeterminacy of meaning. Derek Attridge lists Stevens among authors like Derrida and Heidegger who have used etymology not romantically, but who rather “turn the etymological dictionary against itself by using the power of etymology to undermine the easy mastery of language implied in much of our literary and philosophical tradition, and to shake our assurance in fixed and immediately knowable meanings” (Attridge 203). Attridge stresses that this demonstrates that de Saussure’s famous separation of synchrony and diachrony is difficult to make absolute:

Saussure’s failed attempts to control folk etymology, spelling pronunciation, and prescriptive modification point the way towards a different view of history, one which will not simply reverse his privileging of synchrony over diachrony, but will encourage what Saussure tried to forbid: the entry of diachrony into synchrony – the entry of history into our current experience and current struggles (Attridge 199).

Perhaps if diachrony were entirely irrelevant, it would be easier to create an ideal language than it is (since exceptions to rules and bizarre grammar rules always have a history). Etymological nostalgia has taken on many shapes in the last 150 years, and all of them have ultimately come to seem untenable. But beyond nostalgia, etymology continues to be of interest. The persistence of lay interest in etymology, which I noted at the start of the paper, is perhaps evidence that consideration of history also sometimes includes consideration of the history of language.


Approach to Etymology:

Type of Truth Sought:

Originary Approach

(The idea that etymology speaks some kind of truth by revealing what the word originally meant.)

Palimpsestic Approach

(The idea that not the origin of the word, but rather the process of its evolution, reveals some form of truth.)

Ontological (roots have a higher ontological status)

Adamic story: Milton, Tooke

Aryan story: Renan, Müller

Vague story: Trench, Graham


Poetic (original or earlier moments of linguistic apprehension have status)

Emerson, Müller


Evolutionary (language reveals truths about human development)


Barfield, Jespersen

Disruptive (old meanings help disrupt our linguistic arrogance)


Stevens, Attridge

Works Cited

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            Attridge, Geoff Bennington, and Robert Young. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987,


Barfield, Owen. History in English Words. London: Faber and Faber, 1926.

---. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928.

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Crystal, David. Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language. Cambridge:

            Cambridge UP, 1995.

Dowling, L. “Victorian Oxford and the Science of Language.” PMLA 97.2 (1982) 160-


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems. Ed. Robert E. Spiller.

            New York: Washington Square Press, 1977.

Fenollosa, Ernest. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Ed. Ezra

            Pound. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1936.

Fox, A. “Historical and Comparative Linguistics in the 19th Century.” Encyclopedia of

            Language and Linguistics. 2nd Ed. Vol. 5. Ed. Keith Brown. Amsterdam:

            Elsevier, 2006, 317-326.

Graham, William. Exercises on Etymology. London: William and Robert Chambers,


Harris, Roy and Talbot J. Taylor. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought: The Western

            Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. London: Routledge, 1989.

Jenkins, Lee Margaret. Wallace Stevens: The Rage for Order. Brighton: Sussex

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Jespersen, Otto. Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin. London: George Allen
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Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

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Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New

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Malkiel, Yakov. Etymology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Müller, Max F. Lectures on the Science of Language. 1861. Munshi Ram Manohar Lal:

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---. Three Lectures on the Science of Language and its Place in General Education. 1889.

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---. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1996.

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[1] I use the term Etymology in a general sense in this paper, to mean any account of either the origin or the history (or both) of words. As we shall see, to some authors in the periods I am treating, it is only the origin of a word that is most important, and to some it is the entire history (See Appendix). Some others, such as Jespersen, are also interested in the roots of words in general, but not in the relationship between those roots and specific modern words.

[2] Of course, there is no complete scholarly agreement on this. Some have also argued that Stevens’s poetics is less postmodern and more authoritarian than I make it out to be here. For such an argument, see Jenkins. 

[3] All OED citations are from the second Ed. accessed online, except where 3rd edition is noted.