As you come into Philadelphia airport, you are confronted by an enormous sign that gives an etymological definition: Phil-a-del-phia, “City of brotherly love”. The poster reminds you that this name comes from two ancient Greek words, philia, “love”, and adelphos/adelphe, “sibling”. But, in context, the information offered here is hardly value-neutral. One recent ranking gave Philly the sixth highest rate of homicide in America, and fifth highest for robbery. The etymology (from the Greek: etymos, “true”, and logos, “word”) suggests that the real essence of Philadelphia is betrayed by such statistics. The etymology assures tourists that all is well here, while native inhabitants are reminded of their underlying friendliness – which they may be in danger of forgetting. <…>Characteristically, pedantic humor of this transplanted British egghead has been anticipated by a plebeian colonial contributor to Urban Dictionary nearly two years ago.
As Isidore well knew, etymology is not a value-neutral science. The search for a “truth in words” is cultural, moral and philosophical, as well as philological. If we think back to the Philadelphia airport sign, we might remember that, in the ancient world, the most famous Philadelphia was named by Ptolemy II of Egypt (“Ptolemy Philadelphus”) in honour of his sister, Arsinoe, to whom he was married. “Philadelphia” could just as well be glossed as “the city of sister-fucking”. The writers of etymologies – from Isidore in the seventh century to politicians in modern times – choose how we should define our world.
Isidore, depicted by Murillo
– Emily Wilson, The verbal doodles of Saint Isidore, The Times Literary Supplement, August 01, 2007
Crossposted to larvatus and linguaphiles.