St. Isidore of Seville writes of the value of etymology as follows:
Etymology is the derivation of words, when the force of a word or name is gathered through an explanation. It is what Aristotle named symbolon, and Cicero adnotatio, for it makes names and words known by giving an example; for instance flumen ("river"), because it grew by means of a "flowing (fluendo), was named from the "flowing." The knowledge of an etymology often has an indispensable usefulness for explaining the word. For once you have seen whence a name has arisen, you understand its force more quickly. Indeed, your insight into anything is clearer when its etymology is known. (Etymologies 1.29.1–2)
And for those who would rather have the Latin itself, here it is:
Etymologia est origo vocabulorum, cum vis verbi vel nominis per interpretationem colligitur. Hanc Aristoteles σύμβολον, Cicero adnotationem nominavit, quia nomina et verba rerum nota facit exemplo posito; utputa 'flumen', quia fluendo crevit, a fluendo dictum. 2 Cuius cognitio saepe usum necessarium habet in interpretatione sua. Nam dum videris unde ortum est nomen, citius vim eius intellegis. Omnis enim rei inspectio etymologia cognita planior est.
Once you have seen a word’s origin, you understand its force more quickly, says Isidore. A word’s force is its meaning, of course, but not just that, for there is more to words than their meaning. A word’s origin and history give it a distinctive character and texture, a particular weight and feel. Isidore thus speaks of seeing (videris) the origin of a word. For a word’s origin is not so much learned and known as seen and experienced. Once its etymology is known, the word affects our senses as much as it affects our mind.
A good example is the word tradition. We tend to think of traditions as customs or practices imparted—or imposed—by our elders and ancestors. They are fixed ways of behaving at certain times in certain circumstances. We tend not to think of tradition as an action. But that tradition is a deliberate act becomes clear from its etymology. Through French (tradicion) and Latin (traditio) nouns, tradition derives finally from the Latin verb trādere, “to hand over, entrust, commit.” Tradition is therefore first “the action or an act of imparting or transmitting something”—the dynamic action of handing on. It refers only secondarily to the static result—the fixed tradition or custom.
Ignorance of this etymology is perhaps partly responsible for the vice Jaroslav Pelikan identified in his essay, first a series of lectures, titled The Vindication of Tradition. There he remarked that: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name."
I thought of both the etymology of tradition and Pelikan's distinction of tradition and traditionalism when I read a beautiful essay by my friends Matthew Tsakanikas and Kevin Tracy. Addressing the meaning of the Latin verb instaurare ("to restore"), as found in the motto of St. Pius X, itself a quotation of Ephesians 1:10, they write:
Instaurare does not mean restoring the cultural make-up of church and state at the time of Trent (or earlier). It means gathering up again structures and fragments of goodness, gathering up new discoveries of authenticated knowledge, gathering and summing up all that makes humanity better, and producing day by day a stronger synthesis founded in the mystery of Christ and love of neighbor. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52).
Matthew and Kevin urge us toward a renewal of the dynamic action of genuine tradition—Pelikan’s living faith of the dead—which is not the static, lifeless iteration of stale custom, but a fresh beginning that preserves the vital union of past, present, and future. It is the careful, hopeful handing on of what was once received in trust—and what, but for this deliberate act of tradition, could slip into the darkness of oblivion.
Sometime after reading Matthew and Kevin's essay I came across a passage in Jacques Maritain's An Introduction to Philosophy which sounds a similar note:
[The school of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas] recognizes that reason is our sole natural means of attaining truth, but only when formed and disciplined, in the first place and pre-eminently by reality itself (for our mind is not the measure of things, but things the measure of our mind), secondly by teachers (for science is a collective, not an individual, achievement, and can be built up only by a continuous living tradition), and finally by God, if he should please to instruct mankind and bestow upon philosophers the negative rule of faith and theology. (Emphasis added)
Maritain’s notion of a continuous living tradition helps me make sense of my own experience as both student and teacher. As a student, I was often overawed by the staggering erudition and acute perception of my teachers. How, I wondered, could a person ever become so brilliant and learned? I tended to attribute my teachers’ learning to their own intellectual prowess and diligent study—to which certainly much of the credit was due. But now, having been a teacher myself for many years, I see how great is my debt to the continuous living tradition that formed me. Often, as I teach, I can hear my teachers’ voices in my own. And this makes me wonder how many voices I was hearing in theirs. Voices stretching back, I suppose, to the dawn of human learning; or at least to the original source of our tradition.
For me, this is a tremendously exhilarating and reassuring thought. It helps me see that my work, as a teacher, is not really my own. Or at least not entirely, or even mostly, my own. It is not my own for two reasons: First, the content of my lessons is not of my own discovery or creation; rather I have received it in trust from my teachers, who themselves received the same lessons from theirs, and on and on through ages and ages and ages, as long as this tradition has survived. Secondly, those lessons are not mine inasmuch as they do not exist for me. I now, for a time, “possess” them but only in the sense that I am responsible for handing them on. I now “hold” something that bears a certain relationship, on the intellectual level, to the possessing of genealogical traits on the biological.
I think of Shakespeare’s sonnet to the young man whom he bids now marry: “Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest / now is the time that face should form another. … Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee / calls back the lovely April of her prime … / but if thou live remembered not to be, / die single, and thine image dies with thee.” Surely Plato at least would agree that intellectual “reproduction” is essential to the survival of a living tradition. The spiritual matrix of living tradition seems to be a kind of “marriage” between teacher and student, or at least a friendship of a very particular kind. The marriage perhaps is rather between reality, or the nature of all things, and the individual mind or soul of the student. It may be better to think of the teacher, as Plato did, as a kind of “midwife.” A midwife whose attendance at the birth of understanding in another's mind is essential to the survival of living tradition.
The penitential season of Advent has now ended with the arrival of our Savior, the Verbum infans as the wonderful Latin phrase has it. Christ in the manger is the Eternal Word (Verbum) who is Himself the source of all rationality and speech, yet in the manger of Bethlehem, lo, there he lies "speechless" or "not-speaking," which is what the Latin word infans (which gives us "infant") literally means. He has become—wonder of wonders—the Wordless Word, the Word who can utter not a word, but in that silence still speaks.
But before we rush on to the new festive season, perhaps you will permit me a final penitential etymology. The phrase "short shrift" is now used to mean "summary, careless treatment" or "scant attention," as in Those annoying memos will get short shrift from the boss. I quote from the invaluable online version of the American Heritage Dictionary, which goes on to explain:
To be given short shrift is not the blessing it once was. The source of our verb shrive (shrove, shriven) and noun shrift, which have technical meanings from ecclesiastical Latin, is Classical Latin scrībere, "to write." Shrive comes from the Old English verb scrīfan, "to decree, decree after judgment, impose a penance upon (a penitent), hear the confession of." The past participle of scrīfan is scrifen, our shriven. The noun shrift, "penance; absolution," comes from Old English scrift with the same meaning, which comes from scrīptus, the perfect passive participle of scrībere, and means "what is written," or, to use the Latin word, "what is prescribed." Theologians and confessors viewed the sacrament of penance as a prescription that cured a moral illness. In early medieval times penances were long and arduous—lengthy pilgrimages and even lifelong exile were not uncommon—and had to be performed before absolution, not after as today. However, less demanding penances could be given in extreme situations; short shrift was a brief penance given to a person condemned to death so that absolution could be granted before execution.
Here's hoping that the only short shrift you receive is in the archaic penitential sense (but in less dire circumstances, of course); and that you yourself never give to the study of etymologies any short shrift of the modern variety.
Now, merry Christmas!