Etymology-Man

In xkcd‘s telling, E-Man swoops in to battle the Etymological Fallacy and speak on behalf of common usage:

(If the cartoon displays as multicolored trash — this is some WordPress glitch — click on the image to see it properly.)

(Hat tip to Tim McDaniel.)

Two things.

First thing: E-Man notes (in effect) that the Adj tidal in tidal wave ‘tsunami’ doesn’t have the etymological sense, ‘of, pertaining to, or affected by tides; ebbing and flowing periodically’ (OED2, with first cite in 1808), but rather is understood metaphorically, to refer to a wave that is like a tide wave. OED2 speaks sniffily of this second sense, describing it as erroneous rather than extended or metaphorical (one person’s metaphor is another person’s error, apparently):

tidal wave

the high water wave caused by the movement of the tide: = tide-wave n. at tide n. … [1830 and 1878 cites in this sense]; erron. (but now in common use) an exceptionally large ocean wave caused by an earthquake or other local commotion.

The first cite in this sense is from Thomas Huxley:

1878    T. H. Huxley Physiogr. 188   The terrible devastation wrought by the great tidal wave, which followed the earthquake at Lima.

(Earlier in this book, Huxley uses tidal in the narrow sense.)

The only other cite for this sense — the remainder of the subentry is for the figurative development ‘a great progressive movement or manifestation of feeling, opinion, or the like’, with first cites from Mark Twain in 1870 and 1875 — is a disapproving one:

1899    Daily News 13 June 8/2   The tidal wave sweeps round the earth twice in the twenty-four hours; the great wave produced by an earthquake, erroneously described sometimes as a ‘tidal wave’, has nothing tidal about it, and it is called by scientific men ‘a free wave’.

(The tidal entry looks to have been carried over untouched from OED1 (1928) and could use some updating.)

Second thing: E-Man notes that if you take etymology really seriously, then tsunami isn’t a satisfactory term either, because of its derivation in Japanese.

Larger moral: etymology is intellectually fascinating, but it’s no guide to meaning. (And watch out for the rising tide.)

One Response to “Etymology-Man”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Google+, Ben Zimmer reminds us about his NPR interview on the history of “tsunami”, here.

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