Maniacal Mental Etymology

In a recent number of the London Review of Books [37.20; 22 October 2015], a poem by Anne Carson gets thinking about etymology:

Prepare for thinking
(in the car as we go)

by reading a book
found in the garage,

Heritage Dictionary
of Indo-European Roots,

where I learn ‘to think’
comes from root men-,

(zero grade *mn-) as in
mind, memory, mention, maniac, museum, money, admonish, monster.

Money? Monster?
A linguist could explain these

but let’s press on.

Whoahoa, there. Let’s not press on just quite yet, please. First of all, it’s the American Heritage of Indo-European Roots, edited by Calvert Watkins (the same Harvard linguist Carson chides in her poem “Pronoun Envy“,  discussed with context here).

I happen to have a copy of this book, and keep it on my desk rather than in my garage. But I don’t need to look at it to know that ‘think’ bears little resemblance, either acoustically or semantically, to all those “m-” words derived from PIE *men-. The poem realizes this, and the assertion of a genetic etymological link is meant (men-, again? No.) to create a metaphorical tension between these unrelated things–how could monster and money come from the same root as think, it implicitly asks–how could these ideas be related? Oh but never mind, that’s the domain of the linguist.

Except a linguist (a historical linguist, which maybe ought to be a protected class) would not explain this at all, because it isn’t the case, and no one has ever suggested it is the case, until this poem. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots tells us think is from PIE *tong- (other sources have *teng-) with the root meaning “to think, feel”, and related to thank, thought, and not much else. But consider (yes, put them with the stars!) the lines: “I learn ‘to think’ comes from tong-, as in ‘think’, ‘thank’, ‘thought’.” Not so good.

I’m writing a book on etymology in modern poetry, and one of the things I’m thinking about right now is the relationship between the etymological fact of the matter (as best it can be ascertained by modern historical linguistics) and the validity or viability of the connections made in poems based on etymological assertions.

Carson has completely misread the entry on *men-, mistaking its statement of the root meaning for a statement of etymological relation. The meaning of *men-  is “to think”, is what AHDIER says, not that “to think” comes from *men-. A linguist could explain this.

One does, in fact, in the guide to entries of the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. There we also learn many things that this poem does not know, such as the fact that *men-1 and *men-2 are not “variants” of *men-, unless you also think homophones (such as mean, to intend, and mean, the average) are “variants” of the same word.

Anyway, as I said, what interests me at the moment is the bearing of the state of the art on the claims of the poem. If a poem made a similarly misinformed claim about, say, basic math, we might be disposed to reject it as incoherent. I’d be willing to bet though that most readers of Carson’s poem either accept the etymological claim, or pass over it unbothered, preferring to focus on the conceptual connections it creates from within the protective shell of poetic licence. Yet should not a poem, being a thing made of concepts and language, and here addressing the relationships between concepts and language over time, be faithful to the disciplinary account of those relationships, especially if it invokes the discipline as an authority?

If not, is it distinguishable from bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense?


  • I think you are misconstruing Carson, who did not write to think but rather ‘to think’, indicating that she was referring to the meaning rather than the English word. Let’s not assume she couldn’t master (especially with a thousand examples in front of her) the arcane typographical conventions of the field. I myself handle them fluently despite having only self-training, thus deceiving the very elect, yea, even at

    In any case, I don’t actually think Monēta < monēo is anything but a venerable folk etymology even if it does date back to the -2C, and I don’t have much respect for μονήρης ‘unique’ either. “Unknown origin”, say I. “Looks vaguely Celtic”, I would add, a suspicion hardly fit for refereed print. Carson was quite right to call it a misfit.

    Guy Jucques has a paper somewhere on the unreaasonable homophony of PIE-as-we-know it, in some ways worse than Classical Chinese, a written-only language. I don’t have a reference, though.

  • It’s pretty clear from the rest of the poem that AHDIER is a pretext for some other poetic process, and that the reference work itself very loosely attended to. I’m not sure how you can rescue ” ‘to think’/ comes from root men- ” on the typographical grounds that “to think” ain’t in italics, since the semantics are pretty straightforward, and the etymological typographical conventions employed in the poem, here and after, are pretty much sui generis.

  • I can’t dispute your speculations over moneta, but I can dispute Carson’s calling out of “money” (if it is such – you might be giving her too much credit). AHDIER doesn’t say it comes out of *men- at all. It says *mon-, “neck, nape”. That too might be wrong — AHDIER ain’t the Bible (which too might be wrong, mind [from *men-]). But in the poem it is ostensibly the source of all this info, (if it is info – if not, what is it?).

  • Well, to paraphrase Clinton, it depends on what you think “comes from” means. If you construe it strictly, you are of course right.

    I was just assuming that the modern sources are right and that monēo is the lengthened o-grade.

  • Or, maybe more closely: ‘it depends on where “comes from” comes from’?

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