Why didn’t I become an etymologist? Or a philologist?

I ask myself that often. And whenever I do, I realize that had I become one or the other, I might better understand the difference between the two fields. Ah, well. We’re only allowed so much time in this life.

Back in the earliest days of my newspaper career, I would look out upon alternative paths, and think how much I would have loved to direct movies. But of course, to do that, I would have had to immerse myself entirely into that, just as I did with newspaper work, in order to rise to the very top of that profession. I’d have had to give up everything else. And it’s probably just as well I didn’t go Hollywood to that extent.

(Later, in the ’80s, I switched to wanting to direct music videos. I loved that medium, wedding two popular art forms I loved so much, and making them one. But again, just as well I didn’t, even though it would have been fun.)

But the fascination with words has always been there. The original meanings of particular words, the relationships between different languages that you can see in them, and the ways they have developed over the ages, reflecting the expanse of human experience through history. We’re a species made to verbalize, and it fascinates me to see how we have chosen to shape words over time, and how the words have shaped us.

Anyway, this hit me this morning, when I responded to a Tweet from @dick_nixon, one of my fave feeds:

Of course, as soon as I’d posted my reply, I started obsessing about one of the words I had used.

“Venerable.”

I used it sort of semi-ironically, deliberately avoiding “old” and using a more respectful term in keeping with the tone of that feed, which very convincingly pretends that the Philadelphia-area playwright who writes it is actually Nixon himself, writing about the present day, except when he posts as Ron Ziegler (always signed with “RZ”) and models the respectful way that the former president would like us to speak to him. (You have to be a fan of the feed to fully appreciate these nuances.)

But then, thinking harder about the word than I usually do, I got to thinking how remarkably similar the word is to the less savory “venereal.” And I realized they must both arise from the original, whom you see so famously depicted below by Botticelli:

The link wasn’t immediately evident from my initial Googling. “Venerable” took me to “venerate.” That took me to “From Latin venerātus, perfect passive participle of veneror (worship, reverence).”

Of course, at this point 2,000 years of Christianity makes it momentarily hard to see the connection between these concepts, but you eventually get there. Wiktionary mentions the goddess with regard to venerari, but Miriam-Webster spells it out a bit more clearly going straight from “venerate:”

Venerate comes from the Latin root venerārī, which has the various meanings of “to solicit the good will of,” “to worship,” “to pay homage to,” and “to hold in awe.”  That root is related to Venus, which, as a proper noun, is the name of the Roman goddess of love and beauty.

And there she is. While we don’t often make the direct connection theologically or linguistically to “venerating” the goddess of love, unless we worship her from Madison Avenue (or Hollywood), it’s certainly something deeply rooted within us. Reminds me of how I used to think occasionally that I’d be comfortable as a member of a fertility cult, and then realized I do belong to a fertility cult: I’m Catholic. Which is, in way, comforting.

It tells us an awful lot about human beings and what makes us tick — and of how we need to be aware of ourselves and channel our tendencies on positive, constructive paths. But that’s a complicated subject I won’t get into right now.

I love this about words in much the way I love genealogy. Sure, it’s fun to figure out one is directly descended from Henry II — as many of you are, just as every one of you who are or European descent is descended from Charlemagne. Which is not a cause for putting on airs, but to stand in awe at the way all this works through time with — as you go backwards — family trees first spreading out, then folding back in upon themselves as the human population gets smaller. I learn about one of these famous connections, read about him or her on Wikipedia, then start branching out from there to learn more about that period in history and what was happening all around that figure, and how it fits into the complex web of human experience from the evolution of homo sapiens to our present, confused day.

You can do that with words, too. Which is why it would have been fun to be an etymologist or philologist or what have you. Of course, it’s probably good that I didn’t, because it would have caused an introvert like me to fold inward even more severely into abstraction. At least journalism forced me to get out and interact with people — while still indulging my love of words.

Speaking of words, let’s close with some lyrics:

Her name is Aphrodite
And she rides a crimson shell
And you know you cannot leave her
For you touched the distant sands
With tales of brave Ulysses
How his naked ears were tortured
By the sirens sweetly singing

I don’t think there was ever a fully-developed official video made of that, my favorite Cream song. It would be fun to make one. I wonder where I would start…

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