Tag Archives: words

Etymology, From the Greek for Wordstuff

Palouse 6At least 30 percent of creative nonfiction is devoted to reflecting on etymology. We examine the words we use everyday. Fruit, from the Latin frui, meaning to enjoy; paragraph, from the middle French for stroke, as in a painting; field, from the German Feld, for open country; language, from the Latin lingua for tongue. The trend in nonfiction is to meditate on the the roots of our language to explore its deeper, older meaning.

But what about the etymology of etymology? The definition is embedded in the the word itself. It describes itself. The word etymology is self-referential, like a hipster trying to be ironic. Etymology is its own inside joke, wearing seventeen layers of irony. Etymology wears beanies with collared shirts and eats egg whites with spinach on whole wheat toast. Etymology knows what time it is.

Etymology comes from the Greek etumos, for truth. It was adopted into Latin where it had a good life before going to middle French to mean a field of inquiry, and after graduation found its way into English, and then ended up in English departments, as the creative decision to plunge backward through itself into its own roots. Like all words that move from English to English departments, its meaning becomes questionable, which is why etymology is used so often in application, but not applied to itself. Worlds could end if etymology, too, was explored into its roots, dug up, transplanted to an essay, and placed in new soil.

As field of inquiry into truth, in its origins, etymology is an artistic form. An essay could be an etymology, gathered into a collection of etymologies. An essay looks backwards, reflects, investigates. The sixteenth century French writer Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais established the literary tradition of using nonfiction to explore ideas, to “test their quality” according to the etymology of essay, may have simply been creating expansive etymologies, long-form etymologies, extended inquiries into truth. Maybe this is what the field of creative nonfiction, in all it encompasses, is meant to do. Journalism, biography, history, documentary, and auto-theory are all founded on etymology, rooted in root-seeking.

I have only recently started using etymology in my writing, but I think it’s more than a trend. It’s a strategy, and one that is regularly tested. I am beginning to use this strategy more and more. When I write, I start on the ground and dig up the roots around me to see how far they go, to see where I can go from there.


Miguel Hidalgo in Language and History

Miguel hidalgoEarly in the morning on this day in 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla went to his parish in the impoverished community of Dolores, near Guanajuato, in Mexico. He rang the church bells, and then called for Mexican independence from Spain. He and his supporters, Creole intellectuals such as Ignacio Allende, alongside rural peasants, Indians, and Mestizos, began to march. Back in the colonial center, the monarchy had struggled through the Napoleonic Wars, and decades earlier the Crown ordered the expulsion of all Jesuits from the Empire, leading to conflicts between church and state. In resistance, Hidalgo uttered his famous Grito de Dolores and proceeded to lead hundreds of armed peasants under a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. However, it remains unclear precisely what Hidalgo actually said.

Today, commemorating the Grito de Dolores marks the beginning of Mexican Independence Day celebrations. By tradition, Mexican leaders shout the following Grito before a crowd:

¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria!
¡Viva Hidalgo!
¡Viva Morelos!
¡Viva Josefa Ortíz de Dominguez!
¡Viva Allende!
¡Vivan Aldama y Matamoros!
¡Viva la Independencia Nacional!
¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!

Hidalgo’s speech would have looked quite different, especially because the contemporary wording honors heroes who came after Hidalgo’s execution in 1811. The original Grito de Dolores, most historians agree, emphasized the place of the Catholic Church. It criticized Spanish rule, but did not call for direct democracy: some accounts have him calling for “death to bad government,” but not necessarily for a different kind of government.

Hidalgo’s call to action began a decade-long, peasant-driven insurgency across Mexico, which would not officially see independence from Spain until 1821. After independence, Mexico continued to suffer under authoritarian caudillos during the nineteenth century. The Mexican Revolution, starting in 1910, began a century after Hidalgo’s revolt, and became another long, bloody conflict. Francisco “Pancho” Villa led peasant militants in the north, Emiliano Zapata led mestizo farmers in the south, and once again rural communities took up arms for land rights and liberty. A new Constitution was one result of the Mexican Revolution.

Hidalgo’s cry for independence galvanized the working poor in rural Mexico. The exact words he used may not be known, but Mexican history is a testament to the power of the words he chose. What he said is reflected in the thousands of individuals who chose to confront the imperial authority. Powerful words are never really lost in history, not when they move people to insist, to assert, to cry out for something better. There’s magic in that kind of language, one that continually reemerges to move us away from ourselves and closer to each other as a whole. It’s this kind of language that shapes and reshapes history.