'Fanciful' etymologies

thompson at handel.jlc.net thompson at handel.jlc.net
Tue May 21 20:06:26 UTC 1996

The discussion of "fanciful etymologies" has been informative, especially
with the addition of the references to recent work on etymologies made by
Profs. von Simson and Houben. It has become clear that we are talking about
several different things here.  I have found Houben's distinction between
"hermeneutic etymologies" and "linguistic (/historical) etymologies"
particularyl helpful.

Since no one has responded to my claim that the so-called "fanciful
etymologies" are related to puns [particularly in the RV], perhaps I may be
indulged with an example from the BrAhmaNas.  At AB 24.5 a rather
extraordinary "etymology" is offered.  Reference is made there to the "'ka'
in 'karma.'"  I will not go into the long history of puns on the
interrogative pronoun 'ka.'  Instead, I would look again at the analysis of
'karma' that is suggested here: 'ka-rma.'  That this is not simply a
"fanciful etymology" or even a "wrong analysis" of the term 'karma' is
evident, I would suggest, from the fact that the second element in the
analysis 'rma' defies Sanskrit morphophonology.  In other words, this is
*not* the kind of "mistake" that a native speaker of Sanskrit would make.
It is, rather, I would suggest, a pun.  I have no trouble calling this
"hermeneutic etymology", insofar as the passage reflects an effort at

But when a poet [e.g. MedhAtithi KANva, at RV 1.16] suggests a semantic
association between 'stóma' and 'sóma' by juxtaposing the words in his
hymn, this is not hermeneutics, or interpretation.  It is, to use Thieme's
term, "Sprachmalerei."  The suggestion that Soma is "liquid praise", which
this hymn generates and reinforces very skillfully, is creative and poetic,
rather than "hermeneutic."

Of course, I am using the term 'pun' very broadly here, like the use of it
that is made by the theorists of the pun cited in my previous posting.  It
is not quite the same thing as classical zleSa.  Sorry for the length of

George Thompson

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