Welcome to the next installment of etymology pieces. This time round, Kelly delves into the word etymology (how meta), dandelions and prostitutes. Infortainment for you. So, read on, dear reader.

“…as we go back in

history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy,

when it is all poetry.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson[i]

The word etymology derives from the Greek word ἐτυμολογία (etumología), itself from ἔτυμον (étumon), meaning “true sense or sense of a truth”, and the suffix -logia, denoting “the study of”. The term etymon refers to a word or morpheme (e.g., stem or root) from which a later word or morpheme derives.[ii]

Strictly speaking, as is indicated by the quote that tops this posting, “Etymology” is “the study of the true sense of a word or morpheme.” The quote, taken only as a definition of what the word means, does not indicate why we or anyone else should engage ourselves in the study of the true sense of a word or morpheme. Also, as is often true of many definitions, this specific definition introduces the problematic word “morpheme” into our study. We can take this introduction as an indication that in order to understand the word and the work that we are engaged in, we must also understand the term “morpheme.” A quick check online, reveals that it is the “smallest meaningful unit in a language,” 1896 (but originally in a different sense, “root, suffix, prefix, etc.”), from German morpheme, coined 1895 by Polish-born linguist Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845-1929), from Greek morphē “form, shape,” a word of uncertain etymology, on analogy of phonème.[iii]

We see from this quote that the word “morpheme” is a relatively new word, coined by the linguist Jan Baudouin de Courtenay to describe a small unit of language like a root word, suffix or prefix. We learn too, that the word was intended, at least in French to parallel the word “phoneme.” I will spare you the long-form quote and instead just point out that “phoneme” is borrowed almost directly from two Greek words “phonema” and “phonein” that refer, respectively to the “sound made” and the “voice.”[iv]  Roughly, then, embedded in our study of the origins of words are the shapes they take and the sounds they make. Knowing more about what the word means still doesn’t give us much information concerning why we should bother with studying words and their origins.

“Phoneme” is borrowed almost directly from two Greek words “phonema” and “phonein”.

An even more telling quote, by Emerson, the epigram for this article, is instructive. Emerson wrote that the origins of words are “all poetry.” As poets, all writers are in some sense poets, we should be intensely interested in the words we choose. It seems to follow then too, that the more we know about the origins of the words we choose, the more we learn about how to use them –poetically. For example, one borrowed from Melissa Harman, that originally appeared in Imagine magazine, later reposted in the PDF previously cited, the word “dandelion.” We may think of dandelions as weeds. If you grew up in a suburb, as I did, the yards (front and back) were constantly besieged by dandelions. As a child, I was often tasked with pulling weeds from the gardens and digging out dandelions from the yard. In retrospect, it seems now that pulling weeds and digging dandelions was an occupation to keep young hands from being idle, assigned by a divorced, working mom with middle class aspirations. In any case, dandelions are tenacious; it is not enough to remove the parts that can be seen, one must dig out the roots as well. Even when one digs out the roots, the plants will inevitably grow back in a mere matter of weeks. I doubt that Melissa Harman was ever compelled to dig dandelions from the family estates, but she does give us the unlikely origins of the word. Dandelion, she reports, is from the French phrase, “dent de lion,” the “teeth of the lion.” We should understand too, that the “teeth of the lion” does not refer to the deep and tenacious root of the plant, but to the bright yellow leaves or petals of the flower.

Dandelion is from the French phrase, “dent de lion,” the “teeth of the lion.”

If you have, as I did, sacrificed three or four hours of innumerable Saturday afternoons digging weeds, you may not fully appreciate the poetic description of the name given by the French. But then, hands wash, scrapes heal, and half a century on, one can appreciate the pastoral quality of the metaphor. I should say too, that the association of teeth, rather than a yellow mane, seems an unlikely comparison. Although, to be fair, I have never seen a lion’s teeth; nor should I wish to see them closely enough to judge whether the comparison to a small yellow flower is justified, for any reason. We can look, however at the shape and sound of the word, as it appeared in the original French phrase, then compare it to the word in English. We might not otherwise understand the spelling of “dandelion”; from the sound alone, it sounds like an effete leonine cartoon character: a “dandy lion”.  When we break down the migration from French to English, we can easily understand how a “t” became a “d” and the rest was adopted, wholesale: “dent de lion” became “dandelion.”

My basic argument then is, that we, as poets, (writers generally) should engage in a process whereby we dig down into the meanings of words, by following extended chains of meanings into the depths of antiquity. In order to illustrate the point, perhaps more evocatively, we should move from the lawn and gardens and into more provocative territories. I should point out too, that, at least for the present, I have not yet pulled out the “big guns” of the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster, nor any of my other usual sources. For the purposes of this present excursion, I want to demonstrate to the reader, that the analysis of words may be conducted simply on-line, using less rigorous sources for one’s inquiry.

Porn…A brothel in ancient Greek was a porneion.

The word “pornography” immediately conjures images of sloppy, raunchy sex and sounds of 70’s stock, sloppy, raunchy music, overdubbed with gasps moans and other assorted, sordid sounds that are best muted. The word was originally coined by an unassuming, wannabe archaeologist, who wanted to write about the habits of Roman prostitutes at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

1842, “ancient obscene painting, especially in temples of Bacchus,” from French pornographie, from Greek pornographos “(one) depicting prostitutes,” from porne “prostitute,” originally “bought, purchased” (with an original notion, probably of “female slave sold for prostitution”), related to pernanai “to sell” (from PIE *perə-, variant of root *per- (5) “to traffic in, to sell”) + graphein “to write” (see -graphy).


A brothel in ancient Greek was a porneion. In reference to modern works by 1859 (originally French novels), later as a charge against native literature; sense of “obscene pictures” in modern times is from 1906. Also sometimes used late 19c. for “description of prostitutes” as a matter of public hygiene.[v]

The Greeks and the Romans had a variety of names for the various kinds of prostitutes

Those who are paying attention may have noticed the unlikely connection I am making between “dandelion” and “pornography,” in that, both words come almost unaltered from the French. Although, in the latter case, “pornography” was borrowed by the French from the Greeks. The reference at the site quoted, the Online Etymology Dictionary, continues by quoting from Charles Anthon’s “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities,” that quote is summarized above. Although Anthon seemed to excuse the Greeks and blame the Romans for the widespread practice of lewd paintings, the fact is, few paintings survive in from the Greeks, while the Roman’s paintings were preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

Both the Greeks and the Romans had a variety of names for the various kinds or classes of prostitutes, based either on where they tended to work or what they specialized in doing. The word “prostitute” itself is evidence of this. Again, I’ll spare you the quote, in the interest of preserving a low word count. The word “prostitute” derives from an Indo-European root that means “to stand” and a Latin root that refers to a “set place”.  The connotation is then, that a “prostitute” stands in a public place to make her or himself available for sexual commerce. I know that sounds like a lot of supposition for a “connotation,” but, it’s what was meant, by the 17th century people who used the term, mostly in formal settings like trial courts or public documents. And yes, men were more commonly accused of prostitution than were women.  Women, as prostitutes, were accepted as a public convenience (of sorts) and generally were not accused nor tried for prostitution, unless or until they did something else wrong.  Men, on the other hand, were committing a “grievous mortal sin of sodomy”—the commercial nature of their actions was somewhat ancillary. Furthermore, since very few men or boys were stupid enough to stand in public places to ply their –er um—trade, (not that they were smarter than women, but that they knew that in their case, sodomy was a capital offense—they would be imprisoned, tortured and killed in grotesque ways) the use of the word “prostitute” is analogous or even euphemistic, only.

The point, I suppose, of the current exercise, is to expose the reader to the meanings hidden within the words we use—from the very ordinary, garden variety words, to the more provocative, even extraordinary words. The deeper we dig, the more we find.

Huge thanks to the wise and wordy wonder that is Kelly Knox. Watch out for some splendid pieces coming up that’ll knock your socks off.

[i]https://cty.jhu.edu/imagine/docs/true-sense-of-a-word.pdf Quoted by Melissa Hartman in her article.

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Etymology



[v] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=Pornography

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