Etymological Pastimes

EtymologyOn numerous occasions, Henry Bettenson calls into question Augustine’s etymological prowess. Augustine’s history of “superstitious” is “absurd.” His origin of “to take counsel” is “unlikely.” And his discussion of hermeneia is “fantastic.” In fact, Augustine’s general ability as an etymologist is so terrible that when he claims “fate” is derived from fari, Bettenson is prompted to remark: “The etymology is, for once, correct.” Augustine was clearly educated, clearly of the intelligentsia. And though he did not have the same command of Greek that he did Latin, not all of his mistakes were with the Greek language. So what gives? Does this perhaps point to a fluidity of language or attribution that was unique to late antiquity and different from our own? It’s one thing, however, to accuse Augustine of making an honest philological mistake and another thing to imply that Augustine created his etymologies ex nihilo. If Bettenson is comfortable in calling Augustine’s etymologies “fantastic,” then perhaps there is something else going on, something unique to late antiquity of which we are not privy. This raises the question: Was there more freedom in late antiquity in deciphering etymologies? If so, then what does this imply about Augustine’s ability to create in defense of an argument? If not, then how does this change the way in which we read those particular passages where an argument hinges upon an Augustinian etymology?

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