Contending and Pretending with Etymology

This morning brought a FB cry for help:


As I happen to have my American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (third edition) handy, I quickly came to the answer that English attend and content are indeed from the same root, although not exactly the same Latin root. That is, the historical semantic tree branches off one step earlier, giving Latin tendere (to stretch), and tenere (to hold, keep, maintain – contentum is a form of con-tineo, “(I) hold together”.

Both of these, AHDIER maintains, are extensions of a Proto-Indo-European (the proverbial PIE in the sky) *ten- [the convention in etymological dictionaries is to prefix all unattested forms with an asterix. It means no one has ever encountered an example of the form; rather, it’s a hypothetical reconstruction based on later attested forms and the rules that might have produced them]. Many English words are similarly traced back to *ten-, via Latin, Greek, Old English (via Germanic), Sanskrit and Persian. Below I’ve constructed a simplified table showing several of these derivations of *ten, through their unattested grammatical forms, to the proximate source, and finally to the English word. Click the image to see it larger and better:
contend PIE

As one can see, English attend belongs with cognates pretend and contend, but is more distantly related to content, coming as it does from a different though cognate Latin word. If attend and pretend are sister words, we might then think of attend and content as cousins.

But where does this leave us? My guess is that FB Eric is in the middle of writing something in which he wants to contrast the concepts of attention and containment, or perhaps a particular use of those two words, and it suits his argument to understand these two concepts as opposite but closely linked. The close link can be established etymologically via a rhetorical turn that depends for its logic on an unarticulated etymological fallacy. These are etymological “antagonyms”, you might say [focussing perhaps on the divergence between “stretch” and “maintain” in Latin, rather than the non-cognate prefixes], and you might go on to contend that the seeming opposition actually masks an underlying unity, or that the two opposites are actually interpenetrating and mutually defining, or something like that.

[UPDATE: As I write this paragraph, the following comes through on FB]:


So there you have it. This kind of etymological rhetoric is common enough in literary criticism, and also in deconstruction in the kind of semi-playful but really serious mode Eric is describing (as with Derrida).

But there’s a problem with this sort of argument, of course, which often goes unaddressed. And that would go along the lines of: so what if attention and containment are from a common root? The same root gives us pretension and contention, detention, and tendril. And if we want to talk extended family, what about catatonia, tantra and baritone? The nub of the objection would be that most PIE roots give such a large number of English words in such a broad semantic range that it looks like cherry-picking to invest just the pair you’re interested in with any significance. One has not, in other words, made a claim about the history of ideas substantiated by the etymological relations between semantic categories. Rather, we have an opportunistic deployment of a contingent etymological link between two words for two concepts.

It’s a kind of rhetorical pretending, that is, rather than a kind of contending. Much less is it attentive to all than PIE *ten- contains, and what else might be obtained from it. As argument, it is rather thin, yes? A bit tenuous. As rhetoric, entertaining. Maybe portentous.

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