A note on etymology LO5968

Sun, 3 Mar 1996 16:46:55 -0500

(This thought is sparked by Virginia Schaefer's (I think) use of the term
"response-able" in a recent post. It is not a response to whoever used
that term, but something sparked by it.)

I have found the study of the origins of words very useful in figuring out
some of the unstated implications of our word choice in conversation and
discussion. Some benefits have been finding out that, for example,
"analysis" comes from the root meaning "to break into constituent parts" -
as opposed to synthesis, for example. This helps me to understand why so
much "analysis" seems to miss or simply discount the whole system.

Word origin study also can turn up certain misunderstandings of the
original meanings of words, such as the idea (I first encountered in
Covey's work) that "responsible" comes from "response-able." This seemed
improbable to me - to be responsible means to have *obligation* to
something, which is unaffected by the ability to affect it. It actually
comes from the Latin "respondere" meaning "promise in return" Ayto, John.
_Dictionary of Word Origins_: USA: Little, Brown, 1990). I suppose it may
be just a focus of mine, but I feel that we should not give ourselves the
chance to be discredited by repeating the mistaken etymology of
"responsible" as "response-able." As valuable as etymology (and the study
of metaphor, as Lakoff & Johnson do in _Metaphors We Live By_) is for
discovering underlying mental models of language, I feel that we should
not allow ourselves to be discredited in our use of this tool by being
careless with it. It is vital, I believe, for LOs not to become perceived
as another "fad" with no serious thought behind it; part of this is to
make sure that we use our key tools (and I think etymology is one)
carefully and correctly so as to prevent them from being discredited.

Daniel Aronson
"Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle"
        - Michelangelo

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