Wednesday, September 03, 2003

And Now For Something Completely Different ... Etymology Wars!

As if the History Wars weren't enough, Gregory Melleuish of the University of Wollongong has opened a new front, taking Stuart MacIntyre to task for a failure of etymological correctness:

Now, as he extends his ambitions to control the past of the historical profession in this country, one must ask: Just how reliable and accurate is [MacIntyre's] history.

For starters, he gets the origin of the word history wrong. He says that it comes from the Greek word meaning to know. Actually, to know in Greek is gignosco, hence cognisant (via Latin) and gnostic in English. Historie in Greek means research or inquiry. Perhaps while the rest of us engage in inquiry, Macintyre, like a true gnostic, just knows.

Chris Sheil dismisses this as a nitpick. Chris' opinion isn't shared by Bernard Slattery; in Bernard's eyes this is pretty clear evidence

that above all Macintyre is a dill who can't accurately define the word for his chosen trade.

Thanks to the availability of the Macquarie Dictionary on-line, it's an easy task to shed a little heat on this issue with perhaps more than a little accompanying light. First, let's look at the Macquarie definition of history:

noun 1. the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. 2. the record of past events, especially in connection with the human race ... [Middle English, from Latin, from Greek: a learning or knowing by inquiry]

And here's gnosis:

noun a knowledge of spiritual things; mystical knowledge. [New Latin, from Greek: knowledge]

I'd suggest that anyone with a bit of nous will now be cognisant that both "history" and "gnosis" originate from Greek words for knowledge (or learning) albeit of different forms. As does "epistemology". "Science" on the other hand, is a more modern word, its antecedents tracing back through Old French to a Latin word for knowledge (but not the only one apparently - there's also the Latin root which gave us "cognisance" to consider).

To wrap this post up, I grabbed a hard copy of The MacQuarie Concise Thesaurus, where I found the following list of words related to "KNOWLEDGE":

n cognition (Obs.), enlightenment, illumination, information, ken, knowingness, light, science, technology, wisdom ... See also UNDERSTANDING

By the way, I'd be interested to know a little more about this section of Melleuish's article, where he dishes up the dirt on Manning Clark:

Clark wrote in his first historical work that the "minority who refuse to conform [to "progressive" forces] . . . must be compelled to conform . . . This may mean imprisonment or exile, or at least a prohibition on their right to express their opinions in public in either speech or writing." He appears never to have renounced that passage.

I don't recall reading anything like this in Clark's History of Australia (although I have a fair idea where I might find it if I went back to my local library and picked up Volume 1). I'm wondering if it's anything like John Maynard Keynes' proposal that the British Government bury jars containing five-pound notes in various locations and issue the unemployed with spades so that they could go dig them up, thus generating an improvement in economic activity.

No comments: