Lies About Etymology and Etymological Lies

Here’s a recent piece on Greek concepts of the truth from The Conversation. It is part of a series developed with WBUR’s On Point, called “In Search of Truth” ( the first episode).

Plato, Cratylus 421b

“It seems that the word onoma [name] is made up from a phrase which means that “this is what we happen to be searching for, the word”. You can recognize this very thing better when we say onomaston, for this clearly reflects that it is about “that which is search” [hon hou masma estin].

Truth [alêtheia] is similar to the rest in this: for the divine movement of existnence seems to be expressed by this utterance—a-lê-theia—as if it were divine wandering, theia – ousa – alê. But pseudos—fallacy—is the opposite of movement. For, in turn, when something is criticized and is held back and is compelled to be silent, then it is like people who are asleep, or those who kath – eudousi. The psi which is added to the beginning of the word hides the true meaning of the name.

 Ἔοικε τοίνυν ἐκ λόγου ὀνόματι συγκεκροτημένῳ, λέγοντος ὅτι τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν ὄν, οὗ τυγχάνει ζήτημα ὄν, τὸ ὄνομα. μᾶλλον δὲ ἂν αὐτὸ γνοίης ἐν ᾧ λέγομεν τὸ ὀνομαστόν· ἐνταῦθα γὰρ σαφῶς λέγει τοῦτο εἶναι ὂν οὗ μάσμα ἐστίν. ἡ δ᾿ ἀλήθεια, καὶ τοῦτο τοῖς ἄλλοις ἔοικε· ἡ γὰρ θεία τοῦ ὄντος φορὰ ἔοικε προσειρῆσθαι τούτῳ τῷ ῥήματι, τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, ὡς θεία οὖσα ἄλη. τὸ δὲ ψεῦδος τοὐναντίον τῇ φορᾷ· πάλιν γὰρ αὖ λοιδορούμενον ἥκει τὸ ἰσχόμενον καὶ τὸ ἀναγκαζόμενον ἡσυχάζειν, ἀπείκασται δὲ τοῖς καθεύδουσι· τὸ ψῖ δὲ προσγενόμενον ἐπικρύπτει τὴν βούλησιν τοῦ ὀνόματος·

Plato, Cratylus 421d

“Say that if we do not recognize a word then it is foreign in origin. This is perhaps mostly true for some of them, and it may be impossible to discover the first words because of their antiquity. For this reason it would not at all be surprising, when words are twisted in every which way, if a really ancient Greek word would be no different from a current foreign one.”

Φάναι, ὃ ἂν μὴ γιγνώσκωμεν, βαρβαρικόν τι τοῦτ᾿ εἶναι. εἴη μὲν οὖν ἴσως ἄν τι τῇ ἀληθείᾳ καὶ τοιοῦτον αὐτῶν, εἴη δὲ κἂν ὑπὸ παλαιότητος τὰ πρῶτα τῶν ὀνομάτων ἀνεύρετα εἶναι· διὰ γὰρ τὸ πανταχῇ στρέφεσθαι τὰ ὀνόματα οὐδὲν θαυμαστὸν ἂν εἴη, εἰ ἡ παλαιὰ φωνὴ πρὸς τὴν νυνὶ βαρβαρικῆς μηδὲν διαφέρει.

Plato and Socrates

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