I have created a new category which reflects my own side-bar interest; no doubt influenced by an old supervisor of mine from Reading Uni. The area that interests us both is the role of history and the internet; perhaps more accurately, History on the Internet.
In this new category you will see any common themes that annoy me about historical enterprises on the net, or references to website I rather like, or debates raging on or anything else that is even remotely related. For today we shall start with a methodological issue;
Etymology is fundamentally the study of words and how they have evolved and changed over time and through languages. It is an interesting form of study that can be more speculative than factual, but when it centres on the main European languages it is very revealing. As a study it is a favourite of mine for random trivia, where we get certain terms or words from, even expressions that have lost most of their original meaning; it makes you sound very clever, when intelligence has nothing to do with it, on your part at least!
The problem with etymology comes when people talk about languages you do not know and so are left at the whim of the protagonist, never knowing how accurate what they are saying really is. They have a habit of telling you that words originate from other languages without giving you the root word, very annoying!
This is a favourite of ‘historians’ or history enthusiasts on the internet, to use etymology to prove that their overarching idea is superior to anyone else’s.* This usually exists in what is called alternative history, or conspiracy theories within history, but inevitably these people stem out and try and take over other areas of innocent inquiry. I don’t feel it is appropriate to quote any of them or reference them; however, I will give you an idea of the etymological manipulation they use, within a ridiculous circumstance of my own creation!
False etymology, proving Harry Potter is in fact the tale of the ancient roman writer Florus;
Harry POTTER is the character of a book
Potter can come from the word Pot or the act of making pottery (more likely the second)
Pottery is usually filled with objects such as flowers
Flower when converted into Latin gives Flora
The male form of Flora is Florus.
Florus is the name of a Roman writer.
Ergo Harry Potter must be the real life tale of Florus!
Although this may sound ridiculous, purposefully so might I add, the point is that, if you did not know Harry Potter was a fictional wizard, and the jump from Potter to flowers was not so obviously stupid, this form of etymology becomes readily believed due to our own misunderstanding of languages (old and new). Quite often this form of argument is used because it is so hard to disprove, so rule number one; if someone’s argument is based too strongly on etymology you cannot follow up, approach with much caution (that includes the work of bona fide academics as well!). Rule number two, if you want to use etymology don’t just rely on Latin based languages. Rule number three, clever word play does not make a solid argument – it makes a clever play with words.
*It should be noted that this does not refer to the many history lovers who use the chat forums, etc to garner further information regarding their own interests rather than spread their own theories.