ENGL 1101: Etymology and the Sway of Time

As if 2010 was not far enough back for you, I now present a research essay from 2009 that I coauthored with my brother Joshua (so if you notice a difference in writing styles, it has nothing to do with my schizophrenia) concerning the unusual history of some common words: idea, rhetoric, tawdry, and guy.

Flippantly Invoked Vocabulary

In today’s culture, words tend to morph to the context in which they are most used. Over mere centuries, vocabularies with deep roots and connotations are reduced to flippantly invoked words. Words that once frolicked in lush definitions are steadily watered-down to common usage and association. As Salman Rushdie laments, “[n]ames, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit” (Rushdie). Among such words are comprised idea, rhetoric, guy, and tawdry.

Perhaps one of the most philosophically cumbersome of these words is “idea.” It has come to mean “a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action; a concept or mental impression; an opinion or belief; a feeling that something is probable or possible” (“idea” New Oxford). However, the word’s introduction originally invoked much stronger philosophic thought. “Idea” is directly derived from the Greek idea, meaning “ideal prototype,” and literally translates “look or form” (“idea” Online Etymology). It originated with the advent of Platonic thought; Plato (428/427 – 348/347 BC), Socrates’ renowned pupil, compiled perhaps his most famous work entitled the Republic. In the seventh book, Plato introduced the Theory of Forms (his equivalent of ideas) — he presented the Cave, an allegory that imagines two worlds: the first sensible, and the second intelligible.

The Cave analogy examines a scene in which prisoners are chained in front of a wall, unable to turn away from the stone slab before them. Further, in the distance behind them are figures who walk in front of a fire with objects, and thus cast shadows on the wall which the prisoners are made to stare at. Plato proposes that these prisoners form generic ideas to describe like shadows so that they may communicate with each other; however, the objects that cast the shadow (or the “perfect” representation) are not fully realized — they are merely identified by vague notions of similar shadows. Similarly, what humanity terms “ideas” are in reality abstract perfections (also termed the “ideal state”) that exist separately from the objects associated with them. Therefore, in Platonic thought, an idea is “an eternally existing pattern of which individual things in any class are imperfect copies” (“idea” New Oxford). From this ancient definition is derived “ideal,” which closely models the original tone of idea: “Existing only in the imagination; desirable or perfect but not likely to become a reality — representing an abstract or hypothetical optimum” (“ideal” New Oxford).

Plato elaborates further on the characteristics of an idea through the Analogy of the Divided Line. The narrator depicts a line divided into two equal proportions, of which the first half represents the intelligible realm, and the second constitutes that which is visible; further, the two subdivisions are subdivided into a certain number of equal constituents. Plato states that the subdivisions in the visible realm (representing objects) may serve as starting points for determining the length of or relationship to (characteristics) other divisions (other objects). Further, he reasons that humanity forms ideas (which are of the intelligible realm) through deduction — ideas are deduced from objects (subdivisions in the visible realm), provided the objects are closely represented by those ideas (subdivisions in the intelligible) that they correspond with.

Less philosophically involved — but nonetheless relevant to the selection — is the term rhetoric. The word has technically retained its proper definition: “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, esp. the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques” (“rhetoric” New Oxford). However, in modern day culture it is more commonly used in a negative connotation, and thus carries sarcastic tone: “language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content” (“rhetoric” New Oxford).

The academic meaning of rhetoric is derived from the Greek rhetorike techie, which translates “the art of the orator” (“rhetoric” Online Etymology). While seemingly vague, rhetoric once held great respect in the political and philosophical arenas. Perhaps one of the better known partially historical examples of ancient rhetoric was Brutus’ fictional speech to the witnesses of Caesar’s brutal murder.

“Romans, countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause, and be silent that you may hear. Believe me for mine honor, and have respect to mine honor that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 3.2.13-25).

Rhetoric in modern culture has come to be regarded as a political tactic to influence the masses without legitimate logical or significant content — often it indicates unintelligible speech or writing due to unnecessarily complex wording, similar to “gobbledygook.” Rarely (except perhaps within the academic realm) are well executed speeches referred to as “rhetoric,” since they are usually associated with unscrupulous reasoning.

Academic words are not the only class of vocabularies that have seen significant change. The word “guy” could be considered one of the most generic and overused words of American pop culture — to the typical citizen it simply means a fellow, a man, and (in the plural form) a group composed of either genders. When it originated in England as a result of a failed conspiracy, it carried the meaning of “a person of grotesque appearance or dress” (Sos). Not until this word reached the United States did it become a neutral method of address.

In England, the sixteen hundreds were marked by persecution of the Catholics under King James I; when James began exiling the Jesuits, an especially incensed group of Catholic worshipers concocted a scheme to obliterate both James and Parliament (Sos). The aptly named Gunpowder Plot was led by conspirators Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright, Thomas Wintour, and Guy Fawkes, among others (Herber).

Complications consistently delayed the execution of their plan, but by 1605, they finally gained possession of a cellar beneath Parliament in which they stored thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. In mid-October, three of the conspirators began discussing how to avoid destroying select Catholics in the explosion. The result was a letter — the famed Mounteagle Letter — sent to discourage William Parker IV Baron Mounteagle from attending Parliament on the fifth of November, the date when the plot was to be executed. Guy Fawkes was set in charge of guarding and detonating the ammunition, and in his occupation was completely ignorant of the suspiciously vague letter. All except he had arranged for a safe escape from England. On November 5, 1606, Fawkes was brought to King James when investigators, alarmed by the letter, found him in the cellar. January 27, 1606 marked the day of his execution, along with his fellow conspirators (Herber; Sos).

The fifth of November quickly turned into a national holiday — Guy Fawkes Day. Children would carry ragged effigies called “guys” and ask spectators for “a penny for the guy” before throwing the effigies into the fire; predictably, “guy” came to refer to “a person of grotesque appearance or dress” (Sos). “Guy” is used in this sense in an English novel entitled The Last Chronicle of Barset:

When, therefore, Mrs. Van Siever entered the room, [t]he old woman stood for a moment holding the open door in her hand. “You fool!” she said, “what are you doing there, dressed up in that way like a guy?” Then Clara got up from her feet and stood before her mother in Jael’s dress and Jael’s turban. Dalrymple thought that the dress and turban did not become her badly. Mrs. Van Siever apparently thought otherwise (Trollope Ch. LX).

When the word migrated to America in the late eighteen hundreds, it was naturally altered to mean “a fellow” or “a man” — possibly because the affiliated English holiday was insignificant to American society. Finally, by the nineteen forties, the term “guy” began to encompass women in its dynamic definition (Sos); this explains why a group of both genders may be labeled collectively as “guys.” Few would have imagined that such a hackneyed title originated from three dozen barrels of gunpowder.

Another word that has experienced startling transformation is the adjective “tawdry;” it may not be among the most well-known of vocabulary, but its history is far from dull. Though its modern meaning is “gaudy, showy, and cheap,” it emerged from the benevolence of a dedicated Catholic saint (“tawdry”). As the objects most associated with her sank in quality, the word mimicked their deterioration and eventually assumed its negative definition (Morris).

Saint Aethelthryth (rendered Audrey), daughter of King Anna of East Angles, lived during the Anglo-Saxon period. When her father arranged for her marriage to Prince Tonbert, ruler-to-be of the South Gyrwas, she reluctantly agreed on the condition that she would retain her virginity. Tonbert soon died, and she married Egfrid, son of King Oswy of Northumberland — under the same vow of virginity. He concurred with her terms for a time, but he soon demanded that Queen Audrey fulfill her wifely duties; she instead fled to Ely in present-day mid-eastern England (McNamara).

She spent the conclusion of her life as a nun and abbess in the “double monastery” she had founded. Though she was recognized for her benevolence and wisdom, she was also known for her obsession with scarves and necklaces. When she was stricken with a throat tumor in 679, she considered it God’s punishment for her vanity (McNamara; Morris).

Since then, an annual fair at Ely, held on the seventeenth of October, sold a neck tie labeled “St. Audrey’s Lace,” which was later shortened to “Tawdry’s Lace” in 1548. At first, “tawdry” denoted “refined,” but the deteriorating quality of the iconic lace demoted the term to “gaudy, showy, and cheap” (McNamara; Morris).

Words are clearly dynamic. While they rarely vary in like progression, they unanimously demonstrate a common trend — that as words pass on through centuries and cultures, they lose their initial vitality. There are several reasons for this — foremost, some words carry specific meaning in a culture, but when they are bequeathed to foreign hands, their esoteric meanings are dismissed. Other words are tied to objects — thus, as the objects change in quality or significance, their associated words morph in parallel fashion. Still, other words change due to reverence for education. In earlier centuries, when education of the majority was unheard of, words were reverenced, and stray fragments of information became the “talk of the town.” In today’s television culture, where most citizens receive some form of education, learning is a switch to be fled; vocabulary is thus carelessly bruised, rather than preserved. Therefore, unless an academic resurgence or revival in the public interest in retaining proper definitions transpires, the English language will continue its trend into more culturally suitable definitions. Words are comparable to clay sculptures — as time and culture handle them perpetually, their fine details are slowly eroded until delicate curves and careful textures become smudges.

Works Cited

Herber, David. “Guy Fawkes: A Biography.” Britannia History. Britannia, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.

“idea.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Online. 1 Dec. 2009.

“idea.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition. 2005. Oxford University Press. Software. 1 Dec. 2009.

“ideal.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition. 2005. Oxford University Press. Software. 1 Dec. 2009.

McNamara, Robert. “St. Etheldreda (Audrey).” Irondequoit Catholic Communities. Saints Alive and All God’s Children, 19 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.

Morris, Evan. “Accelerating into Oblivion.” Word Detective. N.p., 9 Nov. 1999. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.

“rhetoric.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Online. 1 Dec. 2009.

“rhetoric.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition. 2005. Oxford University Press. Software. 1 Dec. 2009.

Rushdie, Salman. “Etymology Quotes.” ThinkExist.com Quotations Online. Online. 1 Dec. 2009.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Ed. A. R. Braunmuller. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Classics, 2005.

Sos, John. “The Maven’s Word of the Day: guy.” WORDS@RANDOM. Random House, Inc., 1 Nov. 2000. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.

“tawdry.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 8 Dec. 2009. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.

Trollope, Anthony. The Last Chronicle of Barset. Classic Reader. Web. 8 Dec. 2009.