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Etymology, Re-Cognition, and Knowledge

Etymology, the science of word origins, is a venerable and well-established branch of (historical) linguistics in need of no explication, but what is not sufficiently appreciated is the variable extent to which a speaker’s internalized knowledge of their language involves a so-called etymological component. One prominent aspect of language use that exploits historical knowledge is paronomasia or punning, where occasionally the force of a pun simply cannot be appreciated without such knowledge.

The knowledge of a word’s origin can also have cognitive force, and even the power to expand one’s experiential horizons. For instance, sitting in an authentic Provençal brasserie in the wilds of rural Vermont during a rain-swept, gloomy afternoon, suddenly one recalls that the English word restaurant is (after all) derived from the present participle of the French verb restaurer ‘restore’ (< Old French restorer), this sort of eating establishment as a cultural institution having originated in France.

Whereupon, one feels restored despite the weather, for as the poet said:

By order Lydian
And virtue pyramidian
I am allowed to love you just a bit.

But heart’s desire
And Music’s lyre
Make me for moral quite unfit.

I see you often in my dreams
And then your radiant eyes throw beams
Just in my bosom.

But after all the clouds do vanish
And sinful thoughts I have to banish,
The ghosts of love, I lose ’em.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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