Daily Archives: 2016-04-16 07:31:14 UTC

Euhemerism Is Not “Doing What Euhemerus Did”

The Family Shakespeare

The Family Shakespeare

Imagine for a minute that you’re administering a test on the history of English literature, and one of your questions asks the students to explain in a short essay the meaning of word bowdlerize. Now imagine I’ve taken your test, and my essay begins:

“To bowdlerize something means doing what Thomas Bowdler did.”

I’m off to a bad start. But it gets worse. I continue:

“We can debate about why he expurgated Shakespeare’s plays, but what matters is what not why he did it.”

Then, oddly, I cite Aristotle’s four causes as if they have any relevance to the meaning and history of a word. Next, I veer off into a discussion about what other bowdlerizers have done.

“Some were offended by sexual innuendo, while others were put off by curse words and impiety. But it doesn’t matter why they did what they did, nor does it matter what the effect was. What they all did in common is the same one thing: expurgate works of literature. A trend begun by Bowdler. And thus so called.”

If I were you, I wouldn’t give me any points. The tiny part I happened to get right is overshadowed by the rest. We’ll see why as we go on.

Euhemerism, again

Richard Carrier, in his recent “Brief Note on Euhemerization,” provides a helpful TL;DR, which begins:

Euhemerization is doing what Euhemerus did: convert a non-historical deity into a deified historical man (in contrast to deification, which is when an actual historical man is converted into a deity).

Everything after the colon is generally correct, albeit incomplete. But in the first part of the sentence Carrier commits the same error I did concerning the word bowdlerize. He has demonstrated a rather extreme case of the etymological fallacy. Usually, that would mean that he knew the original meaning of the word and discounts the current meaning. However, in this case, he has gone all the way back to the word’s eponymous roots.

That isn’t how English works. That isn’t how any language works. Words gain meaning through usage, which explains why Oxford, Collins, Merriam Webster, et al. keep vast repositories of lexical citations. You can’t understand what a word means without knowing how people use it. Living languages are not prescribed; they are described. read more »