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Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Etymology of Literature

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I left the quotes off on purpose.  The name of our magazine has been mangled by a few people, from “Literal Translations” to “Literary Translations”.  The distinction seems obvious, but if you look at etymology, it becomes less so.  In fact, it disturbs me.

Merriam-Webster identifies the Latin word for “letter” (littera) in the origins of “literal,” and the Latin word for “writing, learning, grammar” (litteratus) in the origins of “literature”.  That they share a root is obvious - so where does the distinction come from?

The literal meaning of a word is often different from its literary meaning.  Literality connotes objectivity and certainty.  These are things I cannot abide because I’ve seen too many arguments hinge upon definitions.  In fact, the parties to the argument are often in agreement, but their use of words hides it.

Tact provides an interesting example.  When I discuss problems with people, I am often blunt, up front, honest, insensitive, and tactless.  But I use a lot of strategy to get them to think the way I want them to think.  Although such strategy suggests that I am tactful, my intentional honesty and bluntness (even insensitivity) makes me tactless.  Were someone to argue with me about whether something or someone has tact, I would implore them to avoid the word and communicate the idea in some other way.

Cultures that do not write or did not write passed knowedge between generations using storytelling.  This protected them from the illusion of objectivity and certainty.  There was always a speaker telling the story and this speaker’s own subjectivity was an obvious part of the transfer of knowledge.

Writing introduced the concept of authorless text.  We now have holy books and law books which are widely perceived as authorless - a trait which oddly makes them authoritative and therefore objective.  A literal reading of the law is considered best by many.  I guess my affection for the name of the magazine (chosen by Winona, by the way) stems in great part from my understanding of this situation.

Objectivity is an illusion.  It makes sense to find consensus in a group.  Such consensus is often a reflection of a sentiment held by people not in the group, but to call the result objective is going a step too far.

Even mathematical concepts are subjective: One and one more seem objectively to make two, but if they are sexual creatures, they can make more, and if they are small drops of water, they can make less.  If we consider them to be independent non-interacting units, then we approach objectivity, but we are starting to rely on a host of other definitions about which the English speaking world has found consensus (interact, independence).  In the end, our objective knowledge of math ends up being a consistent set of idealized definitions, applicable to reality for the purposes to which we put them, but idealized nonetheless.

The common use of the term “literal translations” refers to translation from one language to another.  For exmaple, Gesundheit, in german is a compound from ‘Gesund’ which is health, and ‘-heit’, a suffix indicating a state of being.  So a literal translation might be “healthiness.”  A litereray translation might go deeper into etymology or the uses of “Gesund” in German literature.  The common translation is “God bless you,” or just “bless you.”  The point is that more insight is engendered when the distinction between the terms “literal” and “literary” are ignored.  Another way to say this is that there is some truth behind every joke.  Another way to say it that all writing is holy.

So if translations from Internet websites onto the printed page remind you that words often have oceans more useful meaning than most usually find in them, remember Winona who gave us the name, and Litmocracy, where you found it.

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