Fire Chicken


Language Log’s Mark Liberman has put his finger on a common phenomenon which drives me batty: people using (often incorrect or folk) etymology to make philosophical points. Here is how Liberman describes the rhetorical structure of such arguments:

In [language X], the word for [concept Y] is based on the word for [concept Z] (or perhaps, a combination of the words for [concept Z1] and [concept Z2]). Therefore, in order to understand [concept Y], you should think in terms of [concept Z], recognizing the deep traditional wisdom inherent in the lexicographic history of [language X].

Usually the language in question is one associated with what is perceived as an ancient and wise culture: Chinese, Greek, or Hebrew.

Now, if I were to tell you that the Chinese word for a turkey 火雞 is made up of the words for fire” 火 and chicken” 雞, you probably wouldn’t think I was saying anything particularly profound. But if you were a turkey in a world full of chickens, it might sound pretty cool, maybe even profound…

UPDATE: Looking at my post I realize that my attempt at a cute Chinese example doesn’t follow Mark’s schema in the slightest. In fact, I was using the model discussed in this older Language Log post. Equally annoying, but certainly different.

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