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Humanist Archives: March 24, 2020, 10:01 a.m. Humanist 33.683 - etymological digressions

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 683.
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        Date: 2020-03-23 21:13:28+00:00
        From: Francois Lachance 
        Subject: etymologies astray Re: [Humanist] 33.679: we continue


A little digression, hors-piste.

Taking you up on your invitation to compose reflective notes. I plucked from the
bookshelves Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor (in a volume accompanied by AIDS
and Its Metaphors). The text of course differs from the New York Review of Books
article "Disease as Political Metaphor" which you so kindly provided a link

In my reading I stumbled across an item of interest to lexicographers...

Sontag notes

Cancer patients are lied to, not just because the disease is (or is thought to
be) a death sentence, but because it is felt to be obscene -- in the original
meaning of that word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses.

I was wondering why didn't Sontag push this to the off-scene meaning. I took out
the magnifying glass and checked the Compact Edition of the OED (I don't have a
subscription to the online OED). Not finding that particular etymology I took my
scouting online. Various discussions online quote the OED Third Edition to the
effect that the off-scene is a folk etymology derived by a suggestion by Varro.

Michael Newcity in The Invention of Obscenity provides a handy compendium of
various other etymologies ...



There are many theories concerning the origins of the Latin word obscaenus. They
include theories that obscēnus is based on:

-- a combination of ob- (meaning 'on account of') + cænum/caenum/coenum,
which means filth, dirt, uncleanness;

-- canendo, meaning singing, making sound, utterance, thus making an impure or
vile utterance or sound obscaenus; and

-- the word obscurus, meaning 'concealed'.


Ah what a rabbit hole! I am intrigued at what point Varro may have been chased
off the stage and his proposed etymology relegated to folk status.

Francois Lachance

to think is often to sort, to store and to shuffle: humble, embodied tasks

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